Texting and Driving: Why Drivers Get Off Easy in California

The former lawmaker who authored California's first cell phone driving laws believes weak penalties are to blame for drivers' willingness to defy the rules

Next time you're in your car, glance to your left and right -- chances are you'll spot someone texting or checking emails as they're driving, and even though it's illegal, most will get away with it.

Each day in the United States, approximately nine people die and more than 1,000 more are injured in crashes involving distracted drivers, many of whom were suspected of using their cell phones at the time, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Safety advocates believe the number of fatalities and injuries involving cell phones is even higher because many drivers won't admit they were using their phones before a crash.

Despite those alarming statistics, the number of citations issued for cell phone related offenses in California has dropped in recent years, from 476,105 in 2011 to 269,230 in 2015, according to statistics from the Office of Traffic Safety.

"It's a steady, straight climb of just increase in accidents, and we're doing less," said Giana Mucci, whose mother died in a crash involving a suspected distracted driver in 2015. "(The driver) didn't see her because she wasn't looking, and my mom lost her life because of that? We have to do better."

In California, it's illegal to hold your phone to talk, text or engage in any other online activity with your device while driving.

The San Bernardino Police Department is among state law enforcement agencies that conduct occasional undercover "sting" operations to ticket distracted drivers. On a recent June morning, the I-Team was there as officers posed as panhandlers and rode a city bus around town to spot drivers using their cell phones.

Over several hours, they issued 58 citations for illegal cell phone use.

"We're all aware of the fact that this is a huge problem, not just locally, but statewide and nationally," said traffic detective Devin Peck. "This is something that we need to address and this is how we do it on our level."

But Peck admits the crackdowns aren't solving the problem.

"We'll come back out next month and we're going to repeat the program and unfortunately we'll see the same results over and over again," he said.

Former state Sen. Joe Simitian, who authored California's first cell phone driving laws, believes weak penalties are to blame for drivers' willingness to defy the rules, as well as for the declining number of tickets being written.

A driver holding a cell phone to talk or text faces a $20 fine for a first offense. With additional penalties, the total cost of a ticket totals $213. By comparison, a solo driver caught using a carpool lane would pay a minimum fine of $491; a driver cited for littering could pay $1,000.

"If the fine, the fee, the penalty is 20 percent of a littering ticket, we can't be surprised that local law enforcement agencies don't take (a cell phone) ticket as seriously as they might other violations," said Simitian.

While in the state Senate, Simitian attempted to raise the fine for a first offense by just $30. Both times, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the proposal, issuing a statement that said "upping the fines may satisfy the punitive instincts of some, but I severely doubt that it will further reduce violations.

"I don't think anybody's got a desire to be punitive," said Simitian. "The desire is to save people's lives."

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