Thumbs up for anti-distracted driving patrols

The News Tribune The News Tribune The News TribuneJune 11, 2013 

The figures are in from last month’s distracted driver emphasis patrols, and the verdict is: Plenty of us are, indeed, driving distracted.

During the week of May 20, patrols in many communities statewide focused on pulling over drivers who were illegally using handheld cellphones or texting. They nabbed 1,448, compared with 1,059 in 2012 — a 36 percent increase. If drivers are at all intimidated by the prospect of a $124 ticket, it’s not showing.

Here’s a hero of the emphasis patrols: the Gig Harbor police officer who single-handedly ticketed 101 of the 139 drivers the department caught using their cellphones.

Another shout-out to the Puyallup Police Department, which employed a tag-team approach on busy Meridian Avenue. One officer on the street served as a spotter, alerting another to make the stop and issue the ticket. In the first two days of the department’s three-day emphasis patrol, 79 tickets were issued for texting or talking on handheld phones.

Not surprisingly, drivers who violate one law often ignore others as well. Many of those ticketed for cellphone violations in Puyallup also got hit with citations for such offenses as DUI, failure to use a seatbelt or driving with a suspended license. Others were found to have outstanding warrants.

Elsewhere in the South Sound, officers coordinated by the Tacoma Pierce County DUI and Traffic Safety Task Force wrote 159 cellphone or texting citations as well as 393 for seatbelt infractions.

The term “emphasis patrols” usually is associated with anti-DUI efforts. But given what we know now about those who text or use cellphones while driving, it’s entirely appropriate to use those kinds of patrols to ticket distracted drivers.

For one thing, they’re at least as dangerous — if not more — as many inebriated motorists. A driver speaking on a cellphone is as impaired as one with a 0.08 blood-alcohol level — the legal limit. It gets worse for texters: Someone who is texting while driving is as impaired as a driver with a 0.16 level — twice the legal limit.

Distracted driving is a huge factor in accident rates, contributing to more than one-quarter of all fatalities. Even that figure could be low, because this information is often underreported. To be listed as a contributing factor, it has to be self-reported by the driver or witnessed by an officer or an involved party.

With cellphone use and texting increasing, law enforcement should perform even more distracted driving emphasis patrols — and don’t always announce when they’re going to be. Drivers should worry that they are likely to be pulled over at any time. Given the number of drivers who visibly ignore the law against texting and cellphone use, more enforcement is badly needed.

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