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We look at a Cellphone Crackdown here in San Diego

February 21, 2012 1:07 p.m.


Lt. David Gilmore, San Diego County Sheriff's Dept., Traffic Coordinator

Brian Pennings, public affairs officer, California Highway Patrol

Related Story: San Diego Law Enforcement Crack Down On Drivers Using Cell Phones


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. If you're in your car while you're listening to this program, take a safe glance around the the drivers near you. Is anyone talking on a cellphone or texting a message? Chances are good that you'll see someone using a cellphone illegally as you drive around town today. Last week, the San Diego sheriff's department teamed up with the CHP to conduct a cellphone crackdown. It's part of a larger effort to address the dangerous issue of distracted driving. And I'd like to welcome my guests, Lt. David Gillmore of the San Diego County sheriff's department. Welcome to the show.

GILLMORE: Thank you Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And CHP spokesman, Brian Pennings. Welcome back.

PENNINGS: Good afternoon

CAVANAUGH: What is a zero tolerance crackdown on distracted drivers? How does something like that work?

GILLMORE: Well, in this case we worked with the California highway patrol, and we went out on patrol looking for drivers who were specifically violating the hands-free cellphone laws, and the no texts laws. And when we observe those, we stop them, issue a citation.

CAVANAUGH: Have you compiled some statistics about the crackdown last week?

GILLMORE: We, we do have some preliminary statistics, we compiled the CHP and the sheriff's department numbers, we issued over 400 citations to adult drivers. We issued a couple of citations to juveniles who were driving, and they cannot even use a hands-free device. But in addition to that, in the pouring rain, deputies and officers observed almost 500 additional violations they couldn't get to because of priority calls.

CAVANAUGH: Now, since 2008, it's been illegal to use a cellphone while driving without a hands-free device or if you're under 18, to use one at all. Do you think that the message is getting through, lieutenant Gillmore?

GILLMORE: I think the message is getting through. And as a matter of fact, a number of the people contacted and issued citations remarked on the fact that they had heard that they were doing the campaign together.


GILLMORE: The message is getting out, but these devices are such a huge part of our life. And it's a habit.

CAVANAUGH: Lots of people think it's okay to hold their cellphone and make a call or send a text or e-mail when they're stopped at a light. Is that the case?

GILLMORE: Technically, that's still a violation.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Officer Pennings?

PENNINGS: Absolutely. There's case law that says that you cannot have any electronic devices, hand-held, even if you're stopped at a light because you're engaged in the act of driving.

CAVANAUGH: Because a lot of people do that. They figure, well, I have about 90 seconds.

PENNINGS: Well, that and also a lot that we saw last week was that people were holding their phone while it's on speaker. They said, well, I wasn't holding it up to my head. Well, there's no difference between holding it up to your mouth and your ear. It's required to be a hands-free device.

CAVANAUGH: How dangerous is it to use a cellphone while driving, officer Pennings? Do we know how much more likely people are to have a crash when they're using their cellphones in an illegal manner?

PENNINGS: It's huge, Maureen. Here's the thing. When you are -- driving is multitasking in itself, and it requires 100% of your attention. When you are actively engaged in conversation, you are driving subconsciously because your primary mental obligation is not to driving, it's to your conversation. This far, it's been proven that you only perceive half of what's in front of you, 50% of what goes by you have no clue is there because you're driving subconsciously. You are eight times more likely to be involved in a crash. That's just simply engaged in conversation, whether it be hands-free or a passenger, or holding a phone up to your head. Four times more likely to be involved in a crash, which is statistically the exact same as a.08 blood alcohol content in California. You statistically are just as likely to be involved in a crash when you're actively engaged in a conversation as a drunk driver in the State of California.

CAVANAUGH: This must be a lot harder, these laws must be a lot harder to enforce because you can't automatically get sober when you're drunk, but you can put your cellphone down and say, it's off, I didn't use it. How difficult are these laws to enforce?

GILLMORE: They're just like any other violation. If a deputy or officer observes it and is confident that they observed a violation of law, they can issue a citation off of that. And quite often when you show up in court and you say I did not, well, I did not apply it to speeding, or a number of things, however the deputies and officers are trained. They know how to observe a violation. And when you show up in that court with that, the judge has been hearing that all day long. So the truth of the matter is, it's a valid violation even if you throw your cellphone off to the side, that's not necessarily going to avoid you getting a ticket.

CAVANAUGH: It's a pretty expense ticket too?

GILLMORE: Initial violation is about $169?

PENNINGS: It varies from district to district throughout the state. But here it's about $150, and $250 for the second violation.

CAVANAUGH: For teenagers, there's a special edge to all of this, where the use of cellphone and texting is concerned not only are the laws stricter, but cellphones are so crucial to teenagers' sense of self, really.

GILLMORE: Yes. They are.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, this far what kind of education -- are you doing any outreach to high schools and to make them aware of the dangers of cellphones?

GILLMORE: I believe the -- we've worked with CHP on a couple of different campaigns. One of them is start smart, where we talk about the hazards on the roadway. And I believe wasn't that campaign developed by the CHP and

PENNINGS: Yeah, in fact I was on the original team of officers that developed start smart. And that's safe driving in and of itself, and we spend about 15 minutes talking about distracted driving. And the stats for teenagers are astronomical. 90% of their collisions -- well, the first 12 months of your -- half of all teenagers will crash in their first 12 months. And it's been fought through studies that 9% of the crashes that teenagers are involved in have some kind of inattention involved. And 90% of that 90% is the one thing called cellphones. We have a program that we are developing right now like start smart, called Impact. And it's where we physically show the kids and the teenagers exactly how bad they really do drive when they're driving distracted.


PENNINGS: We set up a cone course at the school, we have them do these course, and these are self-proclaimed professional texters, who can text perfectly not looking at their phone, and when you actually have them do multitasking and watch the cones fly, they can't believe how bad they really were. It's called impact, and we are working to develop that statewide. We have one coming up in April with the media, Sacramento is coming down, and hopefully it'll take off statewide.

CAVANAUGH: And Lt. Gillmore, most people will probably tell you that they're used to multitasking while they drive. But when does that become dangerous, distracted drive something

GILLMORE: Well, the problem is the combination of the speeds we travel, the amount of cars out on the roadway. Our multitasking as we normally perceive it, is in, say, our office environment where we're handling a phone call, processing e-mail at the same time. We do this multitasking in these safe environments where the worst thing you do is make a bad decision and send an e-mail off at the wrong time. When you're driving down the road, you're not only multitasking already to operate the vehicle safely, you're trying to make sure you don't hurt anyone other than yourself either. There's a much larger burden and more variables coming your way that you could not predict. It's not the same as multitasking in, say, an office environment.

CAVANAUGH: I think that this particular crackdown was targeted against illegal use of cellphones. But the issue of distracted driving is larger than that. What kinds of things does the CHP talk about when they talk about distracted driving?

PENNINGS: We oftentimes focus on the cell phone, but this is not a new problem. This is an old problem. We've been dealing with this for many, many years. There's no difference between talking on your phone and talking with a passenger. It's the exact same thing. When you're actively engaged in conversation, you only perceive half of what's in front of you. And all a cellphone is like having a passenger in your car the whole time. We have passengers, we have cellphones, we have iPods, we have stereos, we have CDs, we have food, we have drinks. And all of these issues can cause distractions. And I can name fatalities that I've been to where that has been a factor. Each one of those issues have been a factor. So oftentimes we focus on the cellphones because quite honestly that's about 90% of the issues, but it can be a whole lot of other things. Just like I tell the teenagers, we don't let you have passengers in your car, but that's why we don't let you talk on your phone. It's the exact same thing.

CAVANAUGH: There's no laws against eating a cheese burger in your car. How do you enforce the concept of distracted driving?

PENNINGS: Well, if you see a violation occur, and somebody is eating a Hamburger and drinking a shake while going down the road, you know that that's causing them to do that is their inattention. Let's say it's an unsafe lane change. You make a traffic stop and issue a citation for that unsafe lane change. They can't be cited for eating their cheeseburger and drinking their shake. But they will be cited for the act that that inattention caused.

CAVANAUGH: You know, there are some safe driving advocates that say you should avoid having phone conversations at all when you're driving, holding the phone or not. What do you guys think about that? Lt. Gillmore?

GILLMORE: Well, the amount of miles that we've put on the road on duty really has shown a lot that if you can focus the best you can on the roadway, that's just operation your car right. You're still counting on everyone else to operate theirs right. And it's hard to drive defensively if you're not paying attention.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, by having any kind of a phone call. Of course, that's still legal in California

PENNINGS: It is. But if you look, the national traffic highway and safety administration just released a study last month or the month before saying that the states that have the hands-free law, there's no difference. Because the simple act of being engaged in conversation is the problem, the inattention. I would like to remind parent it is or people who have cellphones, that there are some companies out there that will allow you to flip on a feature that if the GPS on the phone goes over 10 miles per hour, it's locked. Everything goes to voice mail. And people go, are well, what if there's an emergency? If there's an emergency, there's a strong possibility you're not going to be doing over 10 miles per hour. So that's something you may want to look into for the safety of your family and friends.

CAVANAUGH: Are there anymore of these crackdowns planned this year?

GILLMORE: We haven't set one up. But isn't there one next month --

PENNINGS: April is national teen distracted driving month, and we're going to be doing a whole bunch of things. And we will have one, and we'll be teaming up with all the other law enforcement agencies throughout the county about once a quarter.

CAVANAUGH: I'll bet you, a lot of people are driving with both hands on the wheel right now.

GILLMORE: I hope so.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much.

PENNINGS: Thank you.

GILLMORE: Thank you.