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More drivers flouting ban on cell phone use

As time goes on, more drivers revert to their old, unsafe, using-a-cell-phone-while-driving ways.
As time goes on, more drivers revert to their old, unsafe, using-a-cell-phone-while-driving ways.

No police in sight.

Your elbow bends, and the phone goes to your ear. You just broke the law.

California Highway Patrol officers have issued more than 20,000 tickets to drivers who violated a new state law that requires them to use a hands-free device when talking on a cell phone. But many appear to be ignoring the law, which went into effect July 1.

"There are still people, despite all the publicity this has garnered, who still don't get it," said Tom Marshall, a CHP spokesman in Sacramento.

CHP officers in Stanislaus County are seeing the same disregard for the law.

"When the law first took effect, people were adhering to the law," said officer Tom Killian, a spokesman for the CHP's Modesto-area office. "As we got further away from July 1, people start going back to their old habits."

He said it was hard for officers to find violators in July but now they see people using their phones every day. The number of tickets the CHP has issued to cell phone violators in Stanislaus County was not available.

Killian said it seems people still don't realize they need to focus all their attention on driving and cell phones are the most common distraction.

"They have the cell phone up to their ear, or they have it in their hand," Killian said. "Hands-free means hands-free."

Court fees cost far more than fines

Although fines for holding a phone and driving may not sound that steep -- $20 for first offenses and $50 a pop for subsequent ones -- court fees can drive those costs to $190 in Stanislaus County, Killian said.

The Modesto Police Department issued 526 tickets to drivers using cell phones from July 1 to Sept. 15, said Lt. Chris Fuzie, commander of the department's traffic unit.

Like the CHP officers, Fuzie said Modesto police saw a lot of people complying with the law in July but the urge to phone while driving seems to be hard to resist.

"Most (violators) say, 'I forgot,' 'It was just a quick call' or 'I didn't know who it was, so I had to pick it up,' " he said.

Sgt. Robert Banks, who supervises the traffic unit in Patterson for the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department, said the unit has issued about a dozen tickets since the law went into effect. But he's starting to wonder if drivers only obey the law when there is a marked patrol car around.

"When I'm working, I don't see anybody using their cell phones," Banks said. "I see a lot of people using cell phones when I'm not working."

The problem is obvious to any driver who's paying attention. Amy Murshed of Clovis always uses a hands-free device, and she gets mad when she sees other people ignoring the law.

"I want to take their phone and step on it," she said.

Police don't have that option, and they're not sure what else they can do to get more people to follow the law.

Not that officers aren't trying. Through last week, the CHP has cited 1,529 yakking motorists in the central division, which stretches from Modesto to Bakersfield.

Lisbeth Chavez of Fresno said she does not have a hands-free device. She said she tries not to talk on the phone while driving, "but if it's my kids, I have no choice."

Police and safety advocates say drivers do have a choice -- and should exercise it wisely.

Cell phones were the top distraction leading to accidents in 2005, 2006 and 2007, said Fran Clader, a spokeswoman in CHP headquarters in Sacramento. Nearly 1,300 accidents occurred because of cell phone use in 2007, she said.

Data compiled throughout the CHP's central division showed cell phones were the No. 1 cause of distracted driving in accidents. Clader can speak from personal experience.

"I was broadsided by a woman on a cell phone who went through a red light," she said.

Law stricter for minors

The law is even stricter for drivers younger than 18. They can't use a cell phone at all. The CHP has cited 147 young drivers statewide and 14 in the central division.

A third law is on the way. Beginning Jan. 1, Californians who type or read text messages while driving can be ticketed.

Matt Skryja, a San Francisco-based AAA spokesman, said the agency promoted a bill to crack down on distracted drivers in 2003 but took no position on the new cell phone law.

But the group supports enforcement, he said.

"If it means promoting safer driving habits, that's something AAA has always promoted," Skryja said. "We always try to tell people to avoid having distractions in the car."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at or 578-2394.