Mon12222014

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Police ramp up hands-free phone enforcement


Photo By: Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Photo Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier

National Distracted Driving Awareness Month alerts motorists to the dangers of using mobile devices while at the wheel.

Los Altos Police Sgt. Paul Arguelles has a simple request of local drivers – keep your hands off the mobile device and on the steering wheel.

Local law enforcement, including the Los Altos Police Department, plan to step up enforcement of the state’s hands-free mobile device laws in April as part of National Distracted Driving Awareness Month. This year, local patrol units are expected to stringently enforce motorists’ illegal use of cellphones without a hands-free device, Arguelles said.

According to Arguelles, increased patrols will reach a fever pitch between today and April 16, when the “highest number” of law enforcement officials are expected to hit the streets. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 3,300 people nationwide died in vehicle collisions involving a distracted driver in 2011 – another 380,000 suffered injuries.

“We’re going to be targeting the use of hand-held cellphones for texting and calling,” said Arguelles, who noted that last year’s statewide effort led to more than 57,000 citations. “Our officers will be out there specifically looking for violators. … We’re going to take a zero-tolerance stance.”

It’s the law

California Vehicle Code 23123 specifically prohibits driving a motor vehicle “while using a wireless telephone unless that telephone is specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking, and is used in that manner while driving.”

Exemptions to the law include drivers using a hand-held cellphone for emergency purposes – such as calling police or for medical assistance. Emergency service professionals or drivers using a device while on private property are also exempt.

Additional laws, including vehicle code 23123.5, extend enforcement to the hand-held use of cellphones for writing, reading or sending text messages. Code 23124 specifically prohibits the non-emergency use of a cellphone – even with a hands-free device – by drivers under the age of 18.

Arguelles offered a simple rule of thumb for those confused by the state’s laws governing mobile- device use.

“If it’s in your hand and you’re driving – that’s considered a violation,” Arguelles said, adding that this includes drivers who use smartphones to read navigation apps, or any other activity that requires a driver to hold a phone by hand.

Arguelles said changing drivers’ habits regarding cellphone use is likely a longer-term effort, noting the similarity to motorists’ behaviors when seat-belt laws went into effect years ago.

Baseline fees outlined in the vehicle codes call for $20 fines for first-time offenders and $50 thereafter per offense. A cellphone violation can escalate to $150 or more after various court and administrative fees are tacked on. Still, the expense of a violation hasn’t served as a deterrent for some motorists, Arguelles said.

A 2012 statewide report by the California Office of Traffic Safety on cellphone use by drivers indicated that 10.8 percent of all drivers used cellphones during the day – up 3.5 percent from the prior year. Drivers 16-25 registered the largest increase, doubling from 9 to 18 percent in 2012.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles reported that hand-held cellphone violations increased 22 percent, to more than 460,000, in the state in 2011. The DMV report added that texting violations increased 47 percent in 2011.

“The majority of people comply with the law, but there’s still work to be done,” Arguelles concluded. “This is the type of habit that’s just not appropriate.”

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