Officer targets distracted drivers

It took less than two minutes for Officer Kha Bao to spot someone talking on a cell phone.

Bao had been sitting in his car, tucked into a driveway near a 55 Freeway offramp in Costa Mesa, watching as rush-hour commuters passed in front of him.

Less than five feet from his cruiser, a blue BMW with a Dodgers' license plate frame rolled slowly past. The driver held an upside-down smart phone close to his mouth as he talked and looked straight ahead.

"I don't think he even realized we were there," Bao said as he hit the gas and then the brakes to swerve around a corner and pull over the car. "That's what part of distracted driving is."

After writing a ticket for about $160, Bao drove back to his stakeout, watching for more inattentive motorists exiting the freeway.

For an extra six hours tacked onto his shift April 3, Bao looked specifically for drivers using cell phones.

He worked the distracted-driving beat during that overtime as part of a statewide crackdown during the month of April.

Within another two minutes, a woman in a minivan drove past Bao in the same pose — cellphone on speakerphone held just below her mouth with the other hand on the wheel.

"People, for some reason, they either disregard or they don't understand the word 'hands-free'," Bao said.

Grants distributed through the California Office of Traffic Safety let police departments statewide pay for extra enforcement on specific days this month.

Costa Mesa, Irvine and Newport Beach, and about 200 other police departments, ran operations April 3 and Tuesday targeting talking or texting drivers. They'll do the same April 17 and 22.

According to the OTS and the Department of Motor Vehicles, officers wrote 57,000 tickets for cell phone use in April 2013 out of about 426,000 that year.

Bao — who has worked traffic in Costa Mesa for about five years — said he can normally go days without writing a cell phone-related ticket. On some shifts, all he has time to do is bounce from one traffic collision to the next.

But when an OTS grant lets him focus just on distracted drivers, he can write those tickets continuously.

He once handed out 32 in a 10-hour shift. Within two hours April 3, he wrote five.

"I'm tied up here writing this ticket," Bao said after pulling over his first distracted driver about 5:30 that evening. "Imagine how many more there are."

Regardless, Bao said he takes time to ask each driver if his or her phone call was an emergency, but he doesn't always take their word for it.

"I like to cut people some slack when they're telling the truth," he said.

Around dusk, he pulled up next to a woman holding a white iPhone up to her mouth. Bao flipped on his lights and pointed her to a nearby parking lot.

The woman said she'd been talking to a distraught friend whose grandfather was just admitted to the hospital.

Bao explained that still wouldn't qualify as an emergency but offered to let her off with a warning if she proved she was telling the truth by putting him on the phone with the friend.

She dialed.

"Hey Tim, how are you doing? This is Officer Bao."

Thirty seconds later Bao ducked back into his car, pulled out his ticket pad and gave the play-by-play, "Tim said, 'Oh yeah she was talking about her spin class, how happy she was and how much she enjoyed it."

After explaining that her next cell phone violation would cost her about $280, Bao pulled out of the parking lot to look for more talkers.

"I think she's mad at Tim," he said. "Of course it's all Tim's fault."

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