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Coalition launches campaign against distracted driving

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane helps unveil a billboard campaign aimed at protecting pedestrians and bicyclists from distracted drivers Monday.

Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat
Published: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at 12:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at 12:31 p.m.

For more than a year a countywide task force trying to combat the problem of pedestrians and bicyclists killed by distracted drivers has looked for ways to broadcast its message.

Its latest effort can be seen along Highway 101 south of Petaluma on a billboard that went up March 18 with the message: Park the phone while you drive.

The Sonoma County Safe Streets Coalition has gotten free bumper stickers, bus, radio and newspaper ads and now the billboard donated for two months by St. Joseph Health.

The goal is to try and get drivers, walkers and riders to pay more attention and reduce the number of deaths and injuries.

About 30 people, most of them coalition members, gathered Monday morning at Petaluma Valley Hospital, a St. Joseph Health facility. They marked what Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane called a productive partnership between public and private agencies, businesses and nonprofits in the publicity effort.

"It's a day to celebrate ... born out of tragedy," Zane said.

She organized the coalition in the fall of 2011 after a series of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths linked to distracted driving.

Two of those victims were Calli Murray and Christopher "Buddy" Rowe -- young children hit and killed while in crosswalks with family members.

Murray, 2, was hit by a Sonoma State University student who was texting as she drove. A hit-and-run driver hit Rowe, 4. Both drivers were arrested and convicted.

The coalition first met a month after the boy's death.

"We needed to get together and share what we're doing around the county, begin working more collectively," Zane said.

Members include several law enforcement agencies, county public health and public works officials, and members of nonprofits including the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition and Safe Routes to School.

"It has made a difference on bringing more public attention to bicycle and pedestrian safety efforts," said Petaluma police Lt. Tim Lyons. "Instead of us in the south county trying to get the word out about texting or bike and pedestrian safety we are working county-wide to improve safety."

The safety message needs repeating, frequently, said Dr. Brian Schmidt, medical director of trauma services at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, also a St. Joseph Health hospital. Every day, 11 teens die in the United States from distracted driving, Schmidt said.

"People are just addicted to being on their phones," said Schmidt.

The Sonoma County Safe Streets Coalition meets every two months at the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office. The biggest roadblock has been how to accomplish anything without any money to spend.

Their work-around has included seeking donations, grant money and cheap projects, including having public works crews stencil the word "LOOK" in large letters at numerous crosswalks.

"We've put together a campaign ... well over $100,000 worth and we virtually haven't spent one tax dollar," said Zane.

The crashes continue. Petaluma's Lyons said the numbers involving distracted driver crashes continue to increase in the southern city. As a result, it is now standard procedure for officers investigating a crash to check a driver's cellphone records to see if they were talking on it at the time.

"It's a long haul," said Zane. "Hopefully a year from now we'll see less incidents."

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.

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