Police step up distracted driving enforcement

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Photo illustration

Big Island police have increased distracted driver enforcement this year over last.

According to statistics from the Hawaii Police Department, officers conducted roadside checks — known by the euphemistic-sounding term “distracted driving projects” — for drivers using electronic devices from slightly more than one every three days in 2018 to just over one every other day this year somewhere on the island.

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“The Hawaii Police Department has stepped up enforcement of the distracted driving statute,” Torey Keltner, program manager for the department’s Traffic Services Division, said Thursday in an email, and noting that April was Distracted Driving Month.

“During the distracted driving campaign the efforts do turn more specifically to distracted driving,” he said. “These projects don’t detract from officers’ regular duties, they conduct them in addition to their regular workload. The projects are grant funded and officers work outside their regular schedule.”

The grant referred to by Keltner is $57,430 in funding from the National Highway Safety Administration to combat distracted driving.

The grant administered through the state Department of Transportation.

According to the project goal description, “Highly visible and sustained enforcement remains the most effective countermeasure in reducing distracted driving-related crashes and fatalities.”

It’s not just drivers using their cellphones to talk, text or surf the internet and social media who are ensnared in the two-step process — which includes a spotter in a relatively inconspicuous spot with a walkie-talkie communicating with colleagues nearby who pull over and cite those found in violation of numerous traffic offenses.

For the calendar year 2018, officers conducted 131 of the operations, pulling over 1,381 drivers and issuing 1,390 citations. That comes out to slightly more than one ticket per driver stopped. Those are strictly numbers from the distracted driver projects themselves, and don’t include citations written in traffic stops during regular shifts by patrol and Traffic Enforcement Unit officers.

Police categorized the citations as:

• 714 electronic device violations;

• 288 seat belt violations;

• nine child safety seat violations; and

• 379 “other” traffic violations, which can include driving without a license or insurance, expired weight tax or safety inspection tickets and other unspecified offenses.

The grant request by the police department estimated “approximately 450 citations for cellphone/electronic device use and other citations” would be issued — an estimate far outstripped by just the electronic device tickets written during the projects.

This year between Jan. 1 and April 16, officers conducted 54 of the distracted driver projects, stopping 418 drivers and issuing 530 citations, which comes out to 1.26 tickets per driver stopped.

Officers issued citations for the following:

• 243 electronic device violations;

• 126 seat belt violations;

• two child safety seat violations; and

• 159 “other” traffic violations.

If the roadside checks and citations were to continue at the same rate for the remainder of the year, the 2019 figures would be:

• 836 electronic device violations, a 17.1 percent increase over last year;

• 433 seat belt violations, a 50.3 percent increase over last year;

• seven child safety seat violations, a 28.6 percent decrease from last year; and

• 547 “other” traffic violations, a 44.3 percent increase over last year.

“It can be seen that when a grant project is conducted there is a rise in that type of violation and then it begins to lower as drivers habits change,” Keltner said. “The goal of the projects is to influence drivers to operate the vehicles more safely even when they don’t see law enforcement officers. If drivers know that they will receive a citation if they are observed using an electronic device, I believe they are less likely to commit the violation.”

The fine for illegal use of an electronic device while driving is $297 — and for use of that device while driving in a school zone, the fine is $347. The fine for seat belt and child safety seat violations is $102.

As stiff as the fines are, they’re not the ultimate consequence distracted driving carries.

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“It only takes a fraction of a second to alter or end a life forever,” Keltner said “Officers are out on patrol and at special projects performing duties to keep the people of Hawaii Island safe. It is all of our responsibility to drive safely, wear our seat belts, don’t drink and drive (and) don’t drive distracted — which especially includes not using a cellphone.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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