New CHP driving-while-distracted crackdown strikes home in Auburn area

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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The California Highway Patrol investigation of a March 17 double-fatal crash on Foresthill Road comes as law-enforcement agencies around California start a crackdown on distracted drivers. A CHP spokesman said Monday that the CHP investigation into the head-on crash that took the lives of Marla McArron, 74, of Davis, and Richard Tanner, 78, of Foresthill, continues to focus on “inattention” as a possible contributing factor. On Monday, the CHP launched what Commissioner Joe Farrow said is a series of enforcement efforts as part of National Distracted Driving Awareness Month. The campaign started Monday with a two-day, statewide “zero tolerance” crackdown. “When you’re behind the wheel of a vehicle, any distraction can be serious, even lie-threatening,” Farrow told a news conference at the CHP West Sacramento training site. “Texting, especially, while driving is not only illegal, it is just not a good idea.” Inattention while behind the wheel led to the deaths of 116 people around the state in 2009, according to the CHP. More than 17,000 others were injured. The Foresthill Road crash investigation is focusing on the actions of driver Billy Keller, 25, of Foresthill in the minutes and seconds leading to the fatal collision. While the CHP is releasing no details of the investigation, family members of the crash victims in the other vehicle initially posted on the Journal website that Keller’s cell phone was confiscated by authorities at the crash scene and it contained information indicating he had been texting while driving before the accident. They have since declined to elaborate, citing a request from the CHP. On a broader scale, one of the most visible alerts to increasing enforcement on distracted driving can be seen on electronic message boards throughout the area, which alert drivers to penalties that add up to $157 for a distracted driving citation. “Most crashes can be prevented if drivers change their behavior and focus on driving,” Farrow said. Oakdale's Bonnye Spray, one of the speakers at Monday’s conference, said she lost her daughter April 2, 2007, when the 19-year-old misjudged a curve on her way from French Camp to Manteca and crashed her car. Spray learned from her daughter’s roommate that she had been upset and arguing on her cell phone at the time of the crash. Spray said she’d like the current base fine increased from $20 to $50 and a point added to a driver’s record for an infraction. “It’s a growing problem every year and more can be done,” Spray said. “For me, it’s too late.” CHP Media Relations Office Commander Fran Clader said the enforcement component is important but – as it was in slowly bringing up seatbelt-use compliance to the current 97 percent – it’s going to also be about raising awareness levels on texting and cell-phone use. “People have to begin to say ‘It’s not worth it,’ and change,” Clader said. Distracted Driving: Five questions Q. How big a problem is distracted driving in California?/b> A. Driver distractions have joined alcohol and speeding as leading factors in fatal and serious injury crashes. Using cell phones while driving is now the No. 1 source of driver-distraction crashes in California. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 16 percent of fatal crashes and 20 percent of injury accidents in 2009 involved distracted driving. Q. How serious is the risk? A. Drivers using cell phones are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. Q. What is the impact of cell phone use on teen driver safety? A. The age group with the greatest proportion of distracted drivers in 2009 was the under-20 age group. Sixteen percent of all drivers younger than 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported to have been distracted while driving. Q. How does distracted driving compare with drunk driving? A. Texting while driving can delay a driver’s reactions as much as having a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 – the same as a drunken driver. Q. Many things people do in cars are distracting. How is using a cell phone or texting any different than eating, drinking or listening to music? A. The relative risk, frequency and duration of cell phone use makes it much more likely to lead to a crash than most other driver behaviors. While there are a few actions that put drivers at higher risk, including turning around and talking to back-seat passengers, or retrieving a dropped item, or reading a newspaper, drivers engage in these activities for short periods and much less frequently than they do cell-phone conversations and texting. Source: California Highway Patrol