HILO — Citations for the use of cell phones and other electronic devices while driving on Big Island roads almost doubled in 2012 compared to the previous year.
According to statistics provided by the Hawaii Police Department, 2,606 citations were issued last year, up sharply from the 1,351 tickets written by the island’s police officers in 2011.
“I would attribute it (the higher numbers of citations) to an increase in funding we received from the Department of Transportation and the National Transportation Safety Board,” Sgt. Robert Pauole, head of the department’s Traffic Services Division, said Tuesday.
Pauole said that the grant for distracted driver enforcement totaled almost $25,280 for federal Fiscal Year 2011, which was about halfway through when the grant was issued. The amount was increased to $35,917 in Fiscal Year 2012.
“Hopefully, that will help,” Pauole said.
Kona, by far, had the largest number of citations in both years, followed by South Hilo and South Kohala.
The ban on using electronic devices while driving was enacted in 2010, and includes hand-held cell phones, text messages and playing computer games. Hands-free cell phones, such as Bluetooth, are exempted from the ban, as are federally licensed amateur radio operators, emergency responders and people required to use two-way radios while driving for work.
The fine for a first violation of the ban is $97, $5 more than a ticket for not wearing a seat belt. Subsequent violations could bring fines of up to $500.
Only one of the citations over the past two years was issued following a traffic collision. Pauole said that’s because drivers usually will not admit to being on a cellphone, texting or using another electronic device while driving and officers need evidence that’s what occurred to write the ticket.
Pauole said the reasons people continue to talk on cell phones and send and receive text messages while driving — known by the slang term “driving while intexticated” — are “possibly a combination of open defiance and a feeling they won’t get caught.”
“I think a lot of it has to do with having to break that habit that started when cellphones became a household item,” he said. “At this point, because (the law) is new, I believe it’s a bigger problem than seat belt violations, although I think that seat belts are a more important issue as far as saving lives in a traffic crash.”
Pauole said that police set up checkpoints to check for for drivers using electronic devices and seat belt violations, since the methodology used to nab motorists violating those laws is the same.
“We encounter a higher amount of violations if we encourage the officers to go out in teams of between three, four or five officers,” he said. “We have a spotter in an inconspicuous location on the side of the road and he observes the violations. He’ll then call to the officers down the street and inform them with a description of the vehicle, saying that the driver is using the cellphone, or the driver has no seat belt on, or something like that. Then, the officers down the road will pull the car over into a safe location and issue a citation.”
Some also called for the ban on the use of hands-free calling while driving, as well, saying it’s also a distraction.
“There are degrees of distraction,” Pauole said. “Just using the hands-free device is considered a distraction. Then, if you hold a cell phone while driving, that’s even more of a distraction, because you’re supposed to have two hands on the wheel. Then, there’s an additional distraction of holding a device in front of you and texting.”
Pauole said he was recently driving toward downtown Hilo on Kinoole Street and saw a woman texting while in the left lane waiting to turn left onto Mohouli Street.
“She had no idea that the two cars in front of her had made their left turns and that she was holding up traffic,” he said. “If I had been able to get her license plate number, I would have at least sent her a violation letter.”
A citation for violating the electronic device ban is considered a moving violation, so it appears on a driver’s traffic abstract, said a supervisor at Hilo District Court. That could, in turn, lead to higher insurance premiums in addition to the fine. While many would consider a $92 fine and the possibility of a higher insurance premium good reasons not to use electronic devices while driving, Pauole said there is an even better reason.
“Somebody may happen to be on the side of the road walking, jogging or riding a bike,” he said. “It happens a lot where people are using the phone or texting and they veer onto the shoulder for just a split second. And in that split second, you could hit someone, maybe a child walking to school with a parent. That’s not something you’d want on your conscience for the rest of your life.
“I know people don’t think that will happen to them, but it can.”