City targets distracted drivers

La Cañada Flintridge officials are renewing calls for increased driver-safety awareness with a campaign in February to spread the message through schools, churches and businesses.

Signs warning drivers to "Be Aware, Drive with Care" were placed throughout the La Cañada Flintridge late last year, developing a theme that members of an informal city traffic-safety committee will expand on using banners, yard signs and window stickers of similar design.

City traffic statistics in 2010, meanwhile, offer conflicting indicators of just how seriously local drivers are considering safer practices behind the wheel.

The 133 traffic collisions documented in the city during the first 11 months of last year represented a significant drop from the 169 recorded over the same period last year and the 202 logged January through November 2008 — reductions that officials credit to decreased speeds and traffic volumes.

But at the same time, Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies issued tickets in 2010 to more than 600 La Cañada drivers who were illegally talking on, or texting from, cell phones while on the roadway, said Sheriff's Sgt. Mark Slater.

"When I drive around in my own car, I see it all the time. Women with long hair try to hide the phone up under their hair … but how many people [otherwise] drive with their hands up under their hair and their mouths moving?" said Slater.

And it appears that adult drivers — not teens — are the ones who seem to be missing the message, with 584 of those tickets going to adults for making illegal calls. Fourteen adults were cited for texting, while just six minors were caught doing either, according to Crescenta Valley Sheriff's Station records.

"Cell phones and texting are a constant temptation for all age groups today, and it points out the need to reinforce safe-driving awareness, which I think the 'Drive with Care' effort is trying to do in a positive way. It's not just directed at young people, it's directed at all of us," said Councilman Stephen Del Guercio, who called for formation of a city driver-safety committee as mayor in 2008.

While law enforcement agencies have difficulty determining how often cell-phone use plays a role in non-injury collisions where witnesses are not present, Slater said the driver who last month plowed into the city welcome sign on Verdugo Boulevard admitted to texting while driving before losing control.

California Highway Patrol investigators also are looking into whether text messaging played a role in a collision Friday night on the westbound Foothill (210) Freeway near the Foothill Boulevard off-ramp.

In that incident, a 22-year-old remains in hospital care with serious injuries after suddenly crossing four lanes and slamming into the center divider so hard a tire came off and hit a passing car, said CHP officer Ming Hsu.

Hsu said it appears the driver's girlfriend received a text message from him within moments of the crash, leading investigators to suspect text messaging is to blame for the crash. But they have not yet ruled out his falling asleep or otherwise losing consciousness.

In May, La Cañada Flintridge City Council members adopted a resolution urging motorists not to text while driving.

In neighboring Glendale, where Mayor Ara Najarian said recently that distracted driving occurs in "epidemic" proportions, police suspect a 20-year-old driver was texting while driving as she struck and killed a pedestrian last year.

Valley Sun sister paper the Glendale News-Press also reported that an undercover Glendale police survey last week recorded 85 of 800 motorists using a cell phone while driving.

By contrast, a September survey by the Automobile Club of Southern California spotted 2.7 percent of drivers in Orange County sending or receiving text messages while driving — far fewer than in Glendale, but still double the number observed prior to the state texting ban went into effect in January 2009.

In advance of a Feb. 7 kickoff of the public-awareness campaign, city committee member Randy Strapazon said the group is approaching La Cañada businesses, churches and private schools to take part in the effort by displaying signs and banners modeled after the "Drive with Care" road signs.

PTA groups and several LCF Chamber of Commerce and La Cañada Flintridge Merchants Association members already have signed on, she said.

Road signs feature images of pedestrians, said Strapazon, "so that people stop and think, 'What if they hit somebody, kill a kid skateboarding or walking a dog?' If each person took it upon themselves to make the streets safer for everyone, we wouldn't need a committee. It all goes back to personal responsibility."

Residents interested in contacting the committee for signs, stickers or banners can e-mail

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