FOURTH STREET — They’re everywhere, they’re dangerous and the Santa Monica Police Department is making it a priority to take them off the road.
SMPD officers ran a sting operation Thursday morning targeting distracted drivers, specifically those caught talking or texting on cell phones.
The operation is part of a three-month push by the Traffic Division to crack down on drivers using their cell phones without hands-free devices, conduct that became illegal in the state in 2008.
Officers netted 46 citations over the course of a pair of two-hour shifts on Thursday, issuing 29 for cell phone-related issues. The remainder covered general traffic safety, like stopping at stop signs, driving at an unsafe speed or failing to stop at a red light.
It may be called a “sting,” but there was no trickery to it.
Investigator Jason Olson — dressed in a vest with the word “POLICE” in large, conspicuous letters — stood on the thin sidewalk that runs along the Fourth Street exit of Interstate 10 holding a sign for the benefit of passing cars (he had to turn down a few offers of money from those who thought he was homeless).
The sign turned more than a few heads.
“Hello, my name is Investigator Jason Olson with the Santa Monica Police Department. If you are on your phone, please be kind to the officer issuing your citation! Thank you,” it read.
The sign drew cheers and thumbs up from occupants of cars that apparently had their own run ins with distracted drivers chatting it up on their way to work or staring into the screen while barreling down the freeway.
“I’ve been honking and yelling at people,” said one woman through her car window. “It’s good. They have to stop doing it.”
Others were less enthused.
“Quote me: Only in Santa Monica.”
As drivers approached, phones visibly to their faces, Olson would step out and affix a numbered, magnetic purple plastic cone to the hood of the car or truck, and instruct them to finish either their right or left turn onto Fourth Street.
Waiting further down the road in either direction were a pair of officers on motorcycles, ticket books at the ready. Olson radioed out the direction of the oncoming offender and their exact offense.
If he was unable to get to them in time to stick a purple cone to the car, he would let the officers know the make and color of the incoming car.
Distracted driving is a severe and growing problem, according to government statistics.
In 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver.
Sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, and raises the crash risk by a factor of 23 compared to an attentive driver.
Driving while using a cell phone also reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent, according to Carnegie Mellon University.