When Petaluma Valley Hospital personnel heard that the Sonoma County Safe Streets Coalition wanted to put up a billboard warning against texting while driving, they saw an opportunity to address a problem that they say sends many people to the hospital.

The billboard — which went up along Highway 101, just south of Petaluma, on March 18 — is part of a countywide campaign by the Sonoma County Safe Streets Coalition, aimed at curbing distracted driving. Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane organized the Safe Streets Coalition in 2011, after a series of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths were tied to distracted driving. The billboard was dedicated Monday morning at a ceremony at Petaluma Valley Hospital, attended by Zane, fellow Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt and about 30 other people.

"The Highway 101 billboard is one we lease for the promotion of Petaluma Valley Hospital Services," said Wendi Thomas, director of nursing over the Emergency Department of PVH. "We were thrilled to get the opportunity to donate that leased space for a two-month period so the 'Park your phone while you drive' message could be more visible to all who live in, work in, or visit our community."

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving accounts for almost 20 percent of all vehicle crashes. Thomas said that during the spring and summer, teens become especially busy with end-of-school-year events, like prom and graduation, making the timing of this billboard installation particularly pertinent.

"With the return of warm weather, families are on the road on vacation," she said. "We need to be vigilant throughout the year about safety, but it helps to get this message out when more motorists are on the roads."

Thomas pointed out that PVH works very closely with law enforcement and local fire departments to save the lives of people who suffer injuries in vehicle crashes. This first-hand experience with the often tragic effects of distracted driving prompted Petaluma Valley Hospital to donate its billboard space at the south end of town to the cause. For the past three years, St. Joseph's Health — which runs both Petaluma Valley and Santa Rosa Memorial Hospitals — has been urging local motorists to take an online pledge against texting while driving.

Thomas said that the hospital's partnership with the coalition to discourage texting while driving is a natural extension of its current public outreach programs. "It's a mission we take very seriously as our community's go-to provider of emergency care," Thomas said.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving is becoming an epidemic in America. The NHTSA said that text messaging while driving creates a crash risk 23 time worse than driving while not distracted and added that 11 percent of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time.

Petaluma Police Traffic Sgt. Ken Savano recently said that while distracted driving statistics are hard to come by because it is difficult to prove that texting was the cause of a collision, it's clear that a large number of people are driving distracted on a regular basis in Petaluma. He described it as perhaps more dangerous than drunken driving.

Petaluma's new billboard will advise drivers to "Park the Phone While You Drive," which is the coalition's campaign slogan. Zane said she has been deeply saddened by the rash of pedestrian and bicycle injuries and fatalities in the county recently and was compelled to try to prevent future collisions.

"I am grateful to St. Joseph Health for donating the billboard space," said Zane in a statement this week. "It allows us to aim our message directly at drivers and will help to change risky behavior.

Rabbitt, Petaluma's county supervisor, said that texting while driving is like closing your eyes for five seconds. "No phone call or text message is more important than another person's life," Rabbitt said.

The hospital is not the only Petaluma agency getting involved in the county's Safe Streets Coalition. Petaluma Transit has also donated three months worth of advertising space on the backs of their eight buses to the coalition's anti-texting while driving campaign. Transit Manager Joseph Rye said he was happy to do so.

"We believe in safety on the road at all times," said Rye. "It's a message that really resonates with Petaluma Transit. The texting and driving is so much worse than it's been in the past. It made us really happy to participate."

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)