Driver cellphone use jumps; California safety officials concerned

A driver takes his eyes off the road to text behind the wheel. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
A driver takes his eyes off the road to text behind the wheel. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File) AP

State highway safety officials reported Tuesday the numbers of drivers talking or texting on cellphones has jumped 39 percent in the last year, a trend they call shocking. In total, 9 percent of drivers were observed using their cellphones during an annual state-sponsored street study.

“It’s shocking that nearly 10 percent of motorists were observed using their cellphones while driving a motor vehicle, a potentially lethal combination,” said Office of Traffic Safety Director Ronda Craft. “We will continue our aggressive public outreach campaign and our partnership with law enforcement to educate the public about the dangers of those who drive distracted and put the lives of others at risk.”

The report comes two days after a driver suspected of texting while driving veered off the road on the 3400 block Edison Avenue in Sacramento County, hitting and killing a 33-year-old man and injuring his 8-year-old son, both of whom were on bikes in a bike lane.

“We know people actively texting can take their eyes off the roadway for five seconds or more,” OTS spokesman Chris Cochran said, “and it is so easy to drift out of your lane and cause tragedies like what happened over the weekend.”

The study was conducted between February and April using street observers at 130 sites, mainly controlled intersections, by OTS and the UC Berkeley Safe Transportation Research and Education Center.

Observers spotted 9.2 percent of motorists on their phones. That is up from 6.6 percent in 2014, but down from the peak percentage of 10.8 in 2012.

Of those 9.2 percent, an estimated 3.3 percent were talking either on a Bluetooth or other hands-free device. That is legal, but state highway safety officials say studies show that act is dangerous because it can cause distracted driving.

Cochran of OTS said officials believe the numbers are up in part because more people use smartphones as an integral part of their daily lives, and many of them still believe they can multitask behind the wheel.

“They’ve heard it is dangerous, but they think they can handle it when in reality, they can’t,” OTS spokesman Chris Cochran said.

Highway officials said 250 law enforcement agencies across the state ticketed 46,000 drivers using a cellphone during an April crackdown – about double the monthly ticket average. The number of tickets for hand-held talking on cellphones was down compared to a similar enforcement effort in 2014, but the number of tickets for texting while driving was up 35 percent.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports 80 percent of vehicle crashes involve some sort of driver inattention. State of California safety officials say they do not have state estimates on the number of distraction-related crashes.

The state Office of Traffic Safety site for information about distracted driving is at: www.ots.ca.gov/Media_and_Research/Campaigns/Distracted_Driving.asp.