April is Distracted Driving Awareness month, a public awareness campaign supported by the California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) and local law enforcement agencies to help mitigate the thousands of accidents that happen each year due to distracted driving. Especially with the rise in cell phone use for not only calling, but texting, navigating, and using other apps while driving, the statistics of people killed from distracted driving continue to rise.
According to the National Safety Council, more than 40,000 people were killed in automobile-related accidents in 2018, and every day, at least nine American die and 100 are injured in distracted driving crashes. Everything from cell phones, to dashboard infotainment systems, to GPS systems, to evolving voice command features, pose a threat to driver and pedestrian safety.
In Rohnert Park’s 2018 traffic analysis, 79 citations were given for traffic collisions and stop sign violations related to cell phone use. While this number is down slightly from the 87 issued in 2017, local law enforcement does not believe the numbers accurately reflect a growing problem.
“It really doesn’t capture the accuracy of cell phone use being down,” says Officer Justin Thompson of the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety. “We’re now getting up to staff with public safety officers. The fact that citations were down is not an indication. Anyone can look around and still see people on their cell phones everyday.”
Distracted driving qualifies as not just talking or texting on a cell phone, but also reading on a phone, book, map or newspaper, using a GPS, watching videos or movies, eating and drinking, smoking, personal grooming, adjusting the radio or CD player or playing extremely loud music. However, for Distracted Driving Awareness month law enforcement is focusing particularly on cell phone use as this appears to be the biggest offender. In fact, engaging in distracting behaviors with a phone like dialing, talking, or texting increases the risk of getting into a crash by three times.
“That is my focus this month,” says Thompson. “My focus is traffic safety overall but really focusing on cell phone citations. We’re nine days into it and there have been about 25 citations already.”
Plain clothed officers will be stationed throughout the City of Rohnert Park several days this month, particularly around busy intersections, to watch for cell phone use violations, distracted driving, motorists not yielding to pedestrians around crosswalks and related infractions.
“We just had a traffic collision today that involved a young lady who was under the influence and she stated later that she had just looked down at her cell phone before crashing into a parked vehicle,” says Thompson. “They say one in four motorists are under the influence of either prescription drugs and/or alcohol, and I would say cell phones are right up there with that.”
Per the California Vehicle Code, it is illegal to hold and use a cell phone while texting, calling or using the apps while driving. If the phone is affixed to the vehicle, it may be operated in a hands free mode using voice activation, or used with the motion of a single swipe or tap of the driver’s finger. According to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, five seconds is the average time a person’s eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55mph, that is enough time to cover the length of a football field blindfolded. To eliminate the temptation, law enforcement advises turning on the “do not disturb while driving” notification on your cell phone. The phone recognizes when you are driving and will automatically send a response to a text.
“If we’re talking about eliminating [cell phone use while driving], turn your phone off,” says Thompson. “You can put your phone in your glove box. Turn off your apple watch or other phone device that syncs up with your phone. You could also be reading your text message on your watch. The courts have not yet addressed this but I’m sure that will probably come up because under the law it is an electronic device. That too could constitute a violation.”
For motorists who cannot completely turn their phone off or put it in a glove box or trunk of their vehicle, Officer Thompson urges drivers to purchase a cradle for their phone and have it mounted.
“That is required by law, that the phone be set up in a hands free device,” says Thompson. “Even to pick up the phone to accept a phone call is not acceptable per the code. You can only accept a phone call or use your GPS if it is in a hands free device.”