CITYWIDE — The next time you think about sending a text while driving — even if it’s just something as simple as “almost there” — you might want to think again.

During the month of January, Santa Monica police officers will be targeting drivers talking or texting on cell phones as part of a campaign to decrease the number of traffic collisions in the city by the sea.

In the new year, the Traffic Enforcement Section will focus on different driving behaviors each month that are the primary causes of collisions, said Lt. Jay Trisler, who has been tapped to lead the section.

Motor officers have already conducted stings to catch drivers who fail to stop for pedestrians and the SMPD routinely conducts sobriety/drivers’ license checkpoints to catch motorists who are impaired or driving without a valid license.

Other behaviors to be targeted include failure to properly stop at stop signs, illegal turns and speeding, especially on Pacific Coast Highway.

“If you don’t have both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road, that’s distracted driving,” said Sgt. Richard Lewis, public information officer for the SMPD.

That includes eating while driving or applying makeup. While there may not be a law against those activities, Lewis said they often lead to a driver failing to follow the rules of the road. If they’re caught, they will be issued a ticket, Lewis said.

Cell phone use is particularly dangerous and the SMPD has received complaints from residents who want cops to crack down on the illegal practice.

Since 2008, it has been against the law in California to talk on a hand-held cell phone. The ban on texting followed in 2009.

Tickets for cell phone violations are $20 for the first offense and $50 for the second. But with court costs and other fees, the total cost of a ticket can be more than triple the base fine amount, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

By the numbers

The National Safety Council estimates at least 28 percent of all traffic crashes — or at least 1.6 million crashes each year — involve drivers using cell phones. The council estimates that 1.4 million crashes each year involve drivers talking on cell phones and a minimum of 200,000 additional crashes each year involve drivers who are texting.

That translates into more than 5,400 deaths and nearly 550,000 injuries, according to the Department of Transportation (DOT).

In July, an elderly man was struck on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica by a driver who police say admitted to be reaching for her cell phone at the time of the collision. The victim, 83-year-old William Smerling, died about a week later from his injuries. He was hit as he walked to the bank, police said.

The City Attorney’s Office has filed misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charges against the driver, who is scheduled to be arraigned Jan. 5 and could face up to a year in jail if convicted, prosecutors said.

It’s fatal collisions like that which prompted National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Deborah Hersman to issue a statement last week calling on all U.S. states to ban drivers from using electronic devices while driving, including for text messaging, unless during an emergency.

The DOT recently approved a new rule prohibiting interstate truck and bus drivers from using hand-held cell phones while operating their vehicles, but Hersman believes they didn’t go far enough.

“Research shows there is no safety benefit to the use of hands-free cell phone devices,” Hersman said. “When at the wheel of a 40-ton vehicle, driving safely should be the driver’s only focus.”

In Missouri, two people died and 38 were injured in a pileup in August 2010 after a 19-year-old driver rammed his pickup truck into the back of a tractor truck and was then hit by one school bus and then another. The teen was texting while driving, the NTSB found after an investigation.

“We are witnessing a disturbing trend in accident and incident investigations — the ever-present cell phone poses an insidious danger when it comes to cognitive distractions behind the wheel,” Hersman said.

Many car manufacturers are including Bluetooth technology that won’t let drivers answer their phone or text while driving. It sends an automatic message that the person is driving and will return the call. The technology is in its infancy, but many see it gaining traction. If it does, legislation could soon follow.

Critics say that would be going too far and are worried about what other activities would be regulated. Would drivers be forbidden from listening to music in the car, or talking with their passengers?

Nine states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands, already bar drivers from using any electronic devices while driving. Thirty-five states and D.C. ban texting while driving. But virtually all states allow drivers to use hands-free devices, even though talking can be a distraction.

An overwhelming number of Americans support a ban on texting while driving.

A CBS News poll conducted in May found that 94 percent of Americans said they believed texting while driving should be outlawed.

But despite that view, a record number of Americans are using their electronic devices while on the road. Forty-seven percent of all adults surveyed in a Pew poll in June, 2010 conceded that they had at least once sent or read a text message while they were behind the wheel.

Not the only one

The SMPD isn’t the only law enforcement agency that is cracking down on distracted drivers.

For 24 hours starting today at 6 a.m., the California Highway Patrol will have a “zero tolerance” policy for those using their cell phones to talk or send texts. They will also be looking for drivers eating, reading or applying makeup.

Under California’s vehicle code, a driver can be ticketed $145 to $1,000 for having “wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.”

Officers will also be tracking these distractions and the number of distracted drivers, because there are not very good data on just how many distracted drivers there are.

Since California’s law requiring hands-free devices took effect in 2008, the CHP has written 518,161 citations statewide. They have written 11,634 tickets for texting while driving.

The SMPD did not have figures immediately available on the number of citations issued for those offenses.

In addition to the law enforcement actions, the SMPD has added two motor officers and a traffic accident investigator so that a third motor officer could be put back on the streets to educate and issue citations, Trisler said.

And starting next week, the SMPD will put into action the Problem Solving Safety Team, which will address long-standing issues within the community.

“If a resident keeps calling in about speeding in their neighborhood or stop sign violations or failure to yield to pedestrians, we’ll have a team ready to respond,” Trisler said.

Motor officers will also be assigned to different quadrants with responsibility over their particular beats. Residents and business owners will be able to contact these officers about reoccurring problems, much like community members do now with their neighborhood resource officers — cops who act as mini-sheriff’s who are responsible for reducing crime on their beats.

“We want to be highly visible and make an impact,” Trisler said.

Those who want to report an ongoing issue can contact Trisler at (310) 458-8471, or Sgt. Phillbo Rubish at (310) 458-4847.

City Hall has also formed the Pedestrian-Traffic Safety Committee comprised of representatives from various city departments to look at ways to make streets safer for everyone, Lewis said.

The committee is still in the early stages, but there are hopes of developing a pedestrian action plan similar to City Hall’s Bike Action Plan, a 20-year vision that planners hope will encourage people to get out of cars and onto bikes.

So what constitutes a violation?

For those unfamiliar with the law against talking and texting, the SMPD has broken it down:

• A person (of any age) holding a cell phone in his/her hand and using the speaker phone, or as is most commonly seen, holding the cell phone to the ear (whether on speaker phone or not), would constitute a violation of 23123(a).

• Juveniles are not allowed to use cell phones at all while driving with or without an ear piece, and whether or not on speaker phone.

• “Write, send, or read a text-based communication” means using an electronic wireless communications device to manually communicate with any person using a text-based communication method, including, but not limited to, communications referred to as a text message, instant message, or electronic mail.

• Scrolling for a name or phone number in a cell phone or entering a phone number does not constitute texting.

“Even so, the police department asks that if you are making a phone call, do it when you are stopped,” Lewis said. “Looking at the phone to dial is what creates the danger that is distracted driving.”

kevinh@smdp.com

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