Citations pile up for distracted driving in Modesto area

04/21/2014 3:50 PM

04/21/2014 6:39 PM

In a sad coincidence, a fatal car crash in Manteca that authorities say was caused by an inattentive driver looking for her cell phone occurred in the middle of Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

Authorities arrested Mia Sara Aguiar, 19, of Stockton on a misdemeanor charge of vehicular manslaughter after her car hit a group of teens walking along a road early Saturday. Three of the teens were injured; the fourth, identified by the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department as Zachariah Gomez, 14, of Manteca, died.

Despite repeated warnings, expensive tickets and well-publicized tragedies, people continue to practice bad habits while driving, law enforcement officials say.

From April 1 to 18, Modesto police issued 64 citations to drivers using handheld cellular phones, spokeswoman Heather Graves said. Eight drivers were cited on suspicion of texting while driving.

And those were only the drivers police say they caught in the act. People are getting craftier about hiding their use of cellphones around authorities, said Officer John Martinez of the California Highway Patrol.

“When we’re in a black and white (patrol car), we’re not seeing it as much,” Martinez said. When officers are in their private vehicles, however, it’s another story.

“You’re not on the road 30 seconds and you’ll see someone texting or using a cellphone,” Martinez said.

The CHP and local law enforcement agencies are working on targeted enforcement of distracted driving this month, with the last of four “high visibility” operations in Modesto set for Tuesday.

Though it’s most commonly associated with the use of cellphones and electronic devices, Graves said, it’s important to remember that any number of activities can be associated with distracted driving.

As part of its focus on the problem, the Pleasanton Police Department traffic unit created a video showing officers in their patrol cars demonstrating unsafe behaviors, such as juggling a meal and a beverage, applying mascara and shaving. It’s a funny video, but it makes clear how much attention such tasks take away from driving.

It’s also expensive: A first-offense ticket for distracted driving will cost at least $161, with subsequent offenses costing drivers $281.

There is one bit of hopeful news in the crackdown, however: Of those cited on suspicion of texting while driving, none of the drivers was younger than 18.

Though Distracted Driving Awareness Month concludes at the end of April, police will stay on the lookout for those who aren’t paying attention to operating their cars.

“Obviously, they always enforce it,” Graves said.

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