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Driving while distracted


Calling a daughter is no excuse. And not knowing how to use a hands-free device won't work either.

Still, these are explanations drivers have given to Santa Rosa police officers after being pulled over using their cellphones.

"I'm a social worker and I need to check the phone for work," said one driver.

"I know I was on the phone," another told the officer. "Did I do anything else?"

Using a cellphone is the greatest source of inattention and makes a driver four times more likely to get into a crash serious enough to injure themselves, studies show.

Law enforcement agencies across the county have begun a monthlong, and now annual, effort to target drivers who can't resist their phones while behind the wheel.

"Distraction changes seemingly good drivers and turns them into bad drivers," Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Rich Celli said.

The crackdown started this week, and while the focus is cellphone use, any kind of distraction could warrant a ticket, police said.

"We're also looking at just being distracted in general, putting on your makeup, reading the newspaper while driving down the road," Celli said.

Tickets in Sonoma County bring hefty fines of $160 for a first time and $280 for a second time.

"It's about safety. We've seen state(wide) and nationally that there's been a direct relation to drivers being distracted and collisions," Celli said.

According to national data, 3,092 people died in crashes in 2010 involving distracted drivers. Hundreds of thousands were injured.

On Wednesday, it appeared that drivers were paying attention, with a resulting drop in the number of tickets given throughout Sonoma County in this year's opening effort.

"Officers are reporting that the word is out and drivers are being more careful. Violations are harder to spot, but they are still out there," said Petaluma Police Lt. Tim Lyons.

Last year's crackdown in Santa Rosa brought in about 200 citations in the first two days, including about 50 for texting. Petaluma officers wrote more than 120 in the first two days.

This year, on Tuesday and through much of Wednesday, Santa Rosa officers had given about 80 cellphone tickets, Celli said.

Petaluma police had written 43 tickets on Monday and Tuesday, far higher than a typical day, Lyons said.

CHP officers in Sonoma County Tuesday wrote 16 distracted driver tickets, including nine for people being on their phones and five for texting drivers.

While patrolling along southern Santa Rosa Avenue Wednesday afternoon, CHP Officer Jeremy Finnerty spotted a driver "with his cellphone, left hand to left ear."

The officer swung around to pull the man over and found competition from a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy who'd spotted the same driver.

"She got to him first," Finnerty said.

The CHP officer had barely gotten back into position along Santa Rosa Avenue near East Robles Avenue when he spotted another suspect driver.

"He's looking down in his lap. You can see he's got an electronic device in his left hand . . . using his thumb . . . and he's driving with his right hand," Finnerty said.

Finnerty gave him a ticket.

Police officials said officers still have discretion to give out warnings.

One such stop occurred about 1:50 p.m. in downtown Santa Rosa. Bicycle Officer Mike Akin pulled over a driver who'd answered his phone.

The elderly man explained he'd just gotten his wife home from the hospital. He'd gone to get her medicine and was headed home when she'd called and he'd answered, he told the officer.

Akin gave him a break.

"I could have given him a ticket," said Akin. "It was a judgment call."

Ralph Morgenbesser, who runs a hotdog cart on a downtown Santa Rosa corner, watches drivers go by making any variety of driving mistakes.

Morgenbesser admitted he's been caught being a distracted driver.

He was pulled over recently on Aston Avenue by a Santa Rosa officer after he answered a call while driving.

"I was lucky," he said. The officer gave him a warning, and so far, Morgenbesser said, it's stuck.

He's aware of a recent trend of pedestrians being hit by cars and killed and he remembers the 2010 case of the Sonoma State University student who was texting when she hit a Rohnert Park mother and child, killing the child.

"I think about what happened in Rohnert Park with that girl. I'm definitely aware of it," he said.

Now when his cellphone rings and he's driving "I actually pull over. I actually find a spot and pull over," said Morgenbesser.

More than 225 law enforcement agencies statewide are participating in the campaign, according to law enforcement officials.

For Santa Rosa police, extra enforcement will last until Monday. Petaluma police and the CHP did maximum enforcement Tuesday and will do it again next Tuesday and again later in the month.

Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.