2012-04-19 / Community
Distracted drivers scorned by CHP
“See, I didn’t even pull out of the driveway and already I see a distracted driver,” said the officer.
Decker is targeting distracted drivers in April as part of Driving Distracted Awareness Month, a nationwide campaign that has law enforcement on the lookout for motorists not fully paying attention to what’s happening around them. The goal is to make drivers more aware that common distractions— such as cellphones—can be dangerous, even deadly.
Decker said distracted driving doesn’t only include phones, but activities such as eating, grooming or picking something up off the floor.
“I’ve seen a guy with a full computer setup in his car,” Decker said. “When I pulled him over, he said, ‘I’m not on a cell, I’m just typing on my computer.’”
Decker has seen everything from drivers eating hamburgers with two hands, women applying makeup and motorists with dogs in their laps.
Fewer fatal crashes
In 2008, California passed a law requiring hands-free cell phones for all drivers. Soon after, all text messaging was banned.
A 2010 survey conducted by the state showed that 60 percent of the 1,700 drivers polled said answering a cellphone was the biggest distraction when driving.
Indeed, a recent study by the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center at UC Berkley showed a dramatic drop—nearly 50 percent—in fatal crashes since the 2008 hands-free law was enacted.
Those numbers may be misleading, however. Chris Cochran, a spokesperson for the state’s traffic safety office, said the actual number of fatal car crashes caused by cellphones may be higher.
“It’s very hard to drug test for using cellphones,” Cochran said. Authorities have no definitive way to test for cellphone use in car crashes, unlike the ability to test drunk drivers with a breathalyzer test.
Hiding their phones
Decker said when the handsfree law was first passed four years ago he was writing about 20 tickets a week, citing drivers who were openly talking on the cellphone while behind the wheel. Now, he writes about three to five tickets a week.
That doesn’t mean the law is being obeyed. Decker said drivers are just getting more creative at hiding their phones from the police.
“Some keep their cellphones on their laps. I’ve seen some holding a phone, and when I pull up next to them, they drop the phone and pretend to be rubbing their temple,” he said.
‘Pleasure center of our brain’
With more drivers using smart phones, drivers are distracted by apps such as games and social media, using their phones as GPS devices and news alerts.
Cochran said cellphone rings and alerts have a psychological effect on drivers.
“When there’s a ping or tone, it actually sets off a chemical response that mimics that of an addition in the pleasure center of our brain.” Cochran said. “The brain says there’s something good there and you have to see it.”
When talking about safe driving at high schools, CHP Officer Miguel Duarte of Moorpark asks teenagers to pull out their cellphones and look at the last text they received.
“Then I say, ‘Is that text worth you dying?’ because it only takes a split second,” Duarte said.
Life or death
While driving the 118 Highway at the east end of Simi Valley, Decker spotted an SUV swerving at 85 mph—an indication the driver may not be paying attention to the road. Decker pulled the driver over.
Sure enough, the 19-year-old driver—cited for speeding—admitted to jerking the steering wheel because she was adjusting the radio. Whether it’s a cellphone or a radio, Decker said any distraction can cause an accident.
“I told her when she’s driving that fast down a grade, it takes one jerk for an SUV to roll over,” Decker said.
As the young woman pulled back on the road, Decker said he hoped the ticket serves as a reminder for the teen to keep her eyes on the road—a message that could be a matter of life or death.