Targeted patrols for drivers using cell phones to begin today throughout Peninsula, state

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

An ill-timed cellphone call could end up costing North Olympic Peninsula drivers and others throughout the state $124 as law enforcement officers begin increased patrols today looking for drivers talking on their cellphones or sending text messages.

Agencies across the state are slated to participate in the first-ever crackdown on distracted driving — which includes talking on cellphones or sending text messages while driving — today through Tuesday.

The Traffic Safety Commission has secured $200,000 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to help law enforcement agencies statewide pay for the patrols, Erica Stineman, safety commission spokeswoman, said Wednesday.

Of that amount, $60,000 is going to the State Patrol, with the remaining $140,000 spread across individual police departments and sheriff’s offices, Stineman said.

The State Patrol will conduct patrols in both Clallam and Jefferson counties.

The Clallam County Sheriff’s Office and the Port Angeles and Sequim police departments also will conduct patrols.

The Forks Police Department will not participate in the campaign because of the department’s small staff, said Jim Borte, public information officer with the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office.

Port Townsend Police Deputy Chief Michael Evans said his department has no extra patrols planned.

Jefferson County Sheriff Tony Hernandez said his office has not received any grant funds from the Traffic Safety Commission to pay for off-duty officers to do extra patrols.

“We’re always looking for distracted drivers,” he added.

“We hear from citizens on a regular basis that they want stricter enforcement of distracted driving laws,” Traffic Safety Commission Director Darrin Grondel said in a statement.

“This effort gives us the chance to provide funding to more than 100 law enforcement agencies throughout Washington to do just that.”

Driving while using a handheld cellphone became a primary offense in Washington in 2010, meaning officers can pull drivers over if they’re seen using a cellphone.

Drivers pulled over for this face a traffic infraction and a $124 fine, according to state law.

The patrols are part of a statewide initiative called Target Zero, which aims to end traffic deaths and serious injuries in Washington state by 2030, Borte said.

Borte, also the Target Zero manager for Clallam County, said the Sheriff’s Office has received $1,500 from the state Traffic Safety Commission to help pay for overtime for officers conducting the patrols.

The Sheriff’s Office and the police departments of Port Angeles and Sequim will each get $500, Borte added.

Borte said officers will conduct patrols for drivers on cellphones from midafternoon to early evening.

“We’re really kind of focusing on after-school traffic and afternoon commuter driving populations,” Borte said.

Borte said research has consistently shown that the human brain will prioritize a phone conversation over driving when tasked with doing both at the same time.

“Your brain is focusing on the conversation, [and it’s] not able to focus down the road,” Borte said.

Additionally, Borte said, drivers being distracted by cellphone conversations, even when using hands-free devices, is akin to having a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent.

“It’s the same as being impaired,” he said.

A 2013 study by researchers at University of Washington Medicine’s Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center found that nearly 1 in 10 drivers was observed using a handheld cellphone or sending text messages behind the wheel, according to the state Traffic Safety Commission.

Nationwide, 12 U.S. states; Washington, D.C.; Puerto Rico; Guam; and the U.S. Virgin Islands have made it a primary offense for drivers to use handheld cellphones while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

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Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at jschwartz@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: April 09. 2014 6:42PM
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