Tracking down texters

Ever since the state made it illegal to send and receive text messages while driving, Mark Bosler has broken his habit of reading messages while behind the wheel.

“It always did seem like a terrible idea,” said the 28-year-old San Francisco resident.

Yet one year since the ban was enacted in California, law enforcement officials claim sending and receiving text messages while behind the wheel is still a rampant problem among drivers — and they have the statistics to prove it.

The issue is now ranked as one of the biggest driving hazards in the nation, prompting federal lawmakers to push for even stronger laws restricting cell phone usage while driving in every state.

California recorded a 20 percent drop in the number of collisions since the state in 2008 passed a law banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving, but the effects of the ban on texting while driving have been less clear, in part because it is much harder to enforce, lawmakers said.

The California Highway Patrol issued 135,000 tickets statewide in 2009 for cell phone violations, including talking on a hand-held phone and texting while driving. Yet, only 1,772 of those tickets were violations for texting. CHP citation numbers only include violations on highways.

In the Bay Area, the CHP issued 175 citations, 24 of which were within San Francisco County limits.

“I wouldn’t say it is strictly enforced,” said Shawn Chase, public affairs officer with the CHP. “We can’t pull everyone over just for that. If we just concentrate on that, then we ignore bigger issues.”

The San Francisco Police Department did not have a breakdown of citation counts for texting-while-driving violations.

Meanwhile, roughly 28 percent of all traffic crashes are caused by drivers who are on their cell phones or texting, according to a January study released by the National Safety Council.

And 40 percent of drivers under the age of 30 have admitted to texting while driving.

While police admit they have been rather lax when it comes to citing drivers who text, they do have plans to up the ante this year and target drivers who are using their cell phones illegally — and that includes texting.

“We cracked down at first but now it has slowed,” San Francisco police Sgt. Bob Guinan said.

He said what the ban really needs is a strong, catchy campaign, similar to the nation’s “Click It or Ticket” enforcement campaign, which has helped increase the seat belt usage to 83 percent nationally, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

San Francisco police are going after cell phone usage grants that will help pay for sting operations, where police set aside certain days to target drivers on their cell phones, Guinan said.

“Drivers have been getting away with it for so long,” Guinan said. “We see a fair amount of accidents caused by texting and driving.”

State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who authored the texting ban legislation as well as the ban on driving while using hand-held cell phones, said he supports stiffening the punishment and fines for drivers busted texting while behind the wheel.

This year, he plans on introducing legislation that will increase the penalties and fines for driving while texting. Currently, the fine is $20, but with court fees, it increases to more than $125, depending on where you are cited. On top of that, insurance rates would increase and a person’s driving record would be affected, Simitian said.

“We actually have pretty good compliance, but there are groups of drivers who aren’t on the program,” Simitian said. “I do think it would be a more significant deterrent if we had higher penalties.”

For the most part, people agree that texting while driving should be illegal. This is especially true among San Francisco residents, many of whom are solely pedestrians.

“I’m mainly a pedestrian,” said Andrew Luring, a San Francisco resident. “I think it’s fabulous that there is no texting while driving.”


State bans draw national attention

The buzz over the dangers of texting while driving has caught the attention national lawmakers who are pushing for states to aggressively go after drivers who are tapping away at the keypad while behind the wheel.

Congress is considering legislation that would dole out transportation dollars to states with more rigorous laws targeting drivers using cell phones.

Federal lawmakers are also rallying behind a national campaign to reduce the number of distracted drivers on the road in general. This month, the U.S. Department of Transportation introduced FocusDriven, a new national nonprofit group formed to raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving, including cell phone usage. The group was modeled after the Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has helped shift society’s attitudes about drinking and driving.

“We are finally getting a wider awareness and acknowledgment of the nature of the problems,” said state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who authored a texting-while-driving ban in California that went into effect Jan. 1, 2009.

“It’s clear that people understand the dangers now in a way that wasn’t the case a decade ago.”

Simitian notes that texting while driving continues to be a big problem, even in states such as California where it is illegal. A 2008 nationwide telephone survey by Nationwide Insurance found that 18 percent of people who own cell phones send or read text messages when driving. That increased to 40 percent among drivers who were younger than 30, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

But Simitian believes that with the help of the federal government, California can begin to drastically curb the number of texting-while-driving accidents. 

“California has taken a good first step. We have saved a lot of lives and that is good, but we can and we should do more,” he said.

Texting-and-driving citations in 2009:

California: 1,772
Bay Area: 175
San Francisco: 24
San Mateo County: 19

Source: California Highway Patrol


States or districts with laws that ban all drivers from texting while operating their vehicle:

District of Columbia
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
North Carolina
Rhode Island

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

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