Apodaca: Pay attention, distracted drivers

A few years ago I was driving near my home in Newport Beach when I noticed that the car in the lane next to me was weaving.

I slowed in order to give the other car a wide berth. Following from a short distance, I watched, slack-jawed in astonishment, as the car blew through two stop signs and then made a right turn immediately in front of oncoming cross traffic.

The driver, a woman who appeared to be about the same age as me, had been gabbing away on a cell phone. She blithely continued on her way, seemingly oblivious to the screeching brakes and honking from other cars, or to how close she’d been to causing an accident.

We all have stories like this; some are much worse. Prosecutors believe that alcohol and texting proved a deadly combination in February, when a car struck a bicyclist on San Joaquin Hills Road. The Newport Coast woman who was driving has been charged with gross vehicular manslaughter.

Curbing drunk driving, of course, has long been a priority of law enforcement agencies. But new research has been emerging that indicates texting while driving can be equally dangerous.

So I was gratified to learn that Newport Beach and Costa Mesa are joining in a statewide effort to crack down on the meathead motorists they blandly refer to as “distracted” drivers.

California has designated April as Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and as part of that campaign the Newport Beach and Costa Mesa police departments will enforce “zero tolerance days” for cell phone use and texting while driving. The first ticket would cost at least $159, and subsequent violations would run $279.

Police in the past have tended to issue warning citations for cell phone violations, said Newport Beach Police Sgt. Steve Burdette. The new campaign will still focus on educating drivers, he said, but now “there will be teeth to” enforcement efforts.

Distracted driving is a major cause of accidents nationwide. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 20% of all injury crashes in 2009 involved distractions such as the use of cell phones and other electronic devices, eating and drinking, reading, grooming, and talking to passengers.

That same year, 5,474 people were killed in car crashes in which distracted driving was a factor. Nearly 1,000 of those fatalities involved cell phone use.

The issue is starting to gain traction. A survey conducted by the California Office of Traffic Safety last year found that residents considered talking on cell phones the second biggest safety problem on state roads. Texting was fifth.

Survey respondents overwhelmingly considered cell phone conversations and texting to be the two the most serious distractions for drivers. But the survey also found what most of us already know: Many drivers ignore both common sense and the law.

In California, all hand-held cell phone use — both texting and talking — is banned while driving. All drivers younger than 18 are also prohibited from using even hands-free cell-phone devices.

Nonetheless, more than 27% of those surveyed by the state admitted to regularly or occasionally talking on hand-held cell phones while driving in the preceding month. More than 9% said they regularly texted or e-mailed while driving.

What’s more, nearly half acknowledged that they’d made a driving mistake while talking on a cell phone, and about 55% reported that they’d been either hit or nearly hit by another driver who was on a call or texting.

Distracted cell phone users can pose a danger even when they’re not driving cars. My friend’s daughter, a pretty, petite college student, was badly injured last month when a texting bicyclist plowed into her from behind. She was knocked face down to the sidewalk, and suffered a broken nose, a hairline fracture on her cheekbone and a concussion.

The boy on the bike fled the scene, leaving the girl bleeding and unconscious, while a good Samaritan who had witnessed the accident came to her aid. Instead of spending her spring break vacationing with friends, this sweet, gentle young woman made the rounds of doctors to prepare for surgery to correct some of the damage.

The young man who hit her was never found. That’s awful enough, but put a careless, texting idiot like that behind the wheel of a car and the risks escalate.

The Newport Beach Police Department offers these suggestions: Turn off your phone, or put it out of reach before starting the car. Tell friends and family that you won’t pick up if they call while you’re driving. Don’t call or text anyone who might be driving. If you must talk or text while in the car, safely pull over first.

These guidelines should be so obvious as to be unnecessary. But it’s a safe bet that the police will catch more than a few violators in the crackdown.

I’ll be cheering the police on, and hoping that the campaign proves to be an effective step toward clearing the roads of the texting, cell phone blabbing dolts that put us all in danger.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.