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Law enforcement cracking down on distracted driving

Published: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 4:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 4:44 p.m.

April is the month CHP and police agencies write more tickets for distracted drivers — mainly cell phone users.

Sonoma County law enforcement, as well as agencies statewide, are participating in the monthlong campaign using added enforcement and personnel.

Almost five years after holding a cellphone while driving became illegal and more than four years since texting went criminal the law breakers are everywhere, said police.

“We're not having a hard time finding the violations,” Petaluma traffic Sgt. Ken Savano said.

A fatal crash on the Sonoma Coast Sunday night provided traffic officers with the ultimate example of how dangerous it can be to drive distracted.

A 22-year-old Sonoma woman died after she missed a sharp turn on Highway 1 north of Bodega Bay. Her Honda Accord overturned into a drainage culvert.

Passengers told CHP officers the woman had been holding her cell phone in her hand and looking at the phone's navigational system as she drove.

She'd also reportedly been drinking.

CHP officers Tuesday continued to investigate the crash and how much of a role those two factors played in the fatality, CHP Officer Jon Sloat said.

“Alcohol affects your ability to multi-task. Add a cell phone in your hand, something bad is going to happen,” Sloat said.

“What an unfortunate highlight to the (distracted driving) campaign,” Sebastopol traffic Officer David Harston said.

Harston said he's seeing more drivers of late distracted by either GPS devices or a smart phone's GPS function.

“I've had people driving (like they are) DUI almost, because they are looking at their cell phone or using GPS on their cell phone,” Harston said. “It's just as distracting, looking, holding it in one hand, one hand off the wheel.”

The motorcycle officer has heard several explanations lately having to do with drivers using their smart phones other than for talking or texting: “I'm just checking my GPS. Just checked an email. I'm changing my Pandora (radio.)”

Agencies indicated there won't be warnings given this year.

“It's an old law now. There's no excuse. They come with hands-free devices. Cradle's cost $10,” Harston said. “I have one, it works great.

Petaluma officers Monday and through Tuesday morning had written 32 distracted driving tickets — mostly for drivers holding their cell phones in their hands.

That compares to about five distracted driving tickets on an average day.

One thing different this year, officers say, is the drivers they stop are admitting they were breaking the law.

“They took a risk they wouldn't get caught,” Savano said.

The risk can be costly.

A first-time violation in Sonoma County costs $162 and subsequent distracted driving tickets cost close to $300, according to the Sonoma County traffic court.

Santa Rosa traffic Sgt. Rich Celli said while cell phones get the most attention, there are other ways for a driver to be distracted and earn a ticket, such as putting on makeup, reading the newspaper or using GPS devices.

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

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