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Coursey: A scary number of scary drivers

Published: Friday, April 5, 2013 at 2:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 5, 2013 at 2:08 p.m.

Here's a scary number: 80.

That's how many drivers were cited in a single day this week during a crackdown on distracted driving by the Petaluma Police Department.

Eighty drivers. In a single day. In Petaluma.

Let's put on our math hats (always a risky proposition for a journalism major) and extrapolate. If 80 drivers were simultaneously operating both their cell phones and their vehicles on Wednesday in Petaluma, a city of about 58,000, then it's a safe bet that in Santa Rosa, a city of 169,000, the cops could have found about 230 distracted drivers on the same day. Or, among Sonoma County's total population of 487,000, more than 670 drivers could have been cited for paying attention to their phones when they should have been paying attention to the road.

And that's just based on the ones who got caught. How many more do you want to bet were out there doing the same thing on Wednesday. Five times as many? Ten? A hundred?

None of the 80 was involved in an accident, but we know by now that cell-phone use contributes to tragedies on the road. And we also know there's never a cop around when you need one, so when you get run down or plowed into by someone who's hitting their “send” button instead of stomping on their brakes, he or she probably will have escaped the statewide dragnet that is “Distracted Driving Awareness Month.”

Thankfully, there are 80 drivers in Petaluma who now know that April is not a good time to use your phone behind the wheel. And hopefully, there are many more who are getting the message through the TV news stories, newspaper articles, radio spots and social media blasts that are helping spread the word.

But 80 citations in a single day in Petaluma indicates that the word isn't reaching far enough.

We don't need the Petaluma Police Department to tell us this. Just look around next time you're idling at a stop light. It doesn't take long to spot other drivers on the phone. They're yakking into one hand while steering through the turn with the other. They're looking down at their lap while accelerating through the intersection. They're pushing buttons, scrolling, sending, reading, laughing, arguing, selling, pleading, ordering and, coincidentally, driving.

The result can be carnage and tragedy on the roads. According to the Petaluma Police Department's press release on Wednesday's enforcement, “hundreds have been killed and thousands seriously injured in California as a result of collisions that involved at least one driver who was distracted. Nationally, an estimated 3,331 died in 2011.”

“We all know that talking on our cell phones while driving is distracting, but that doesn't stop some people from continuing to do it,” Police Chief Patrick Williams said in the release. “We hope that once people see the statistics and realize the danger involved, they will change their driving habits to help protect themselves, their families, and others on the road.”

Some already have changed their habits (remember that when cell phones first became popular, they were commonly known as “car phones”). Others may change when they hear about a family member or a friend who has to fork over a minimum $159 for a first offense, with subsequent tickets costing at least $279.

But a lot of people just feel that whatever is happening on their phone is at least as important as what's happening on the other side of their windshield. During last April's statewide crackdown, more than 57,000 tickets were written for texting and hand-held cell use. There were nearly 450,000 convictions in 2012.

It would be nice to think that number would drop in 2013, since supposedly we are ever more aware of the hazards involved. But in a state of nearly 38 million people, the 80 citations in Petaluma on Wednesday would translate to more than 52,000 statewide. And if you multiply that by 365 days — well, you might be too scared to ever venture out onto the road again.

Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.

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