Distracted drivers interest officers

Beginning Monday, Maui Police Department officers will be stepping up enforcement of distracted driving violations, including cellphone use and text messaging, as part of Distracted Driver Awareness Month.

Officers throughout the county will be aggressively enforcing the violations that divert attention from the primary task of driving, said Lt. Ricky Uedoi, commander of the police Traffic Section. He said such violations endanger drivers, passengers and bystanders,

“We want to make our roads safe for everyone,” he said. “There are three main types of distraction, manual, visual and cognitive. Manual is taking your hands off the wheel, visual is taking your eyes off the road and cognitive is taking your mind off of driving.”

He said text messaging is the most common and most dangerous distraction because it requires visual, manual and cognitive attention from the driver.

In 2011, 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver, compared with 3,267 in 2010, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Another 387,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver in 2011, compared with 416,000 in 2010.

According to a state Department of Health report, an inattentive or distracted driver was a contributing factor for 24, or 8 percent, of the 288 drivers involved in fatal traffic crashes in Hawaii from 2007 to 2010.

The enforcement effort is occurring statewide, following Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s signing of a proclamation declaring April as Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

In Maui County, motorists who use a hand-held electronic mobile device while operating a motor vehicle will be cited under a county ordinance banning the use of such devices. The offense carries a $97 fine.

In the nearly four months from Dec. 1 to Monday, Maui police issued 568 citations to drivers using cellphones or other hand-held electronic mobile devices countywide, Uedoi said.

Statewide, 20,905 distracted driving citations were issued in 2012, according to the state Department of Transportation.

The Maui County ordinance does allow for the use of hands-free devices while driving. “Buying a bluetooth or headset is cheaper than a citation, especially since you can use it anytime while driving,” Uedoi said.

Officers said it’s not uncommon to see drivers using cellphones.

Traffic officer Gregg Rowe said he sometimes sees drivers at stoplights looking down with hand movements indicating that they’re texting.

During a recent traffic stop for speeding, traffic officer Jonathan Kaneshiro said he activated the lights on his police car, yet the driver continued on while talking on her cellphone. He had to chase the driver for about a half-mile before she pulled over.

“You do see a lot of people talking on their cellphone, definitely,” Kaneshiro said.

In another instance, Uedoi said he was stopped in traffic on a two-lane portion of Honoapiilani Highway near a driver talking on her cellphone. Trying to get the driver’s attention, he first sounded the horn of his police car, then activated the siren, getting no response from the driver.

Finally, Uedoi had to pull up next to the driver and knock on her door to get her attention. She told him that she didn’t think the horn and siren were for her.

While all four counties in the state have ordinances banning cellphone use while driving, the Legislature is considering a proposal to enact a statewide distracted driving law. The Legislature also is considering a measure that would ban people under age 18 from driving while using hands-free mobile electronic devices.

The proposals have the support of police.

“This law is specifically designed to change the behavior of unsafe driving associated to the unsafe culture of cellphone use by motorists, which is another form of an impaired driving practice,” said Police Chief Gary Yabuta. “Police officers have seen, firsthand, the devastating consequences of distracted driving at motor vehicle crashes involving property damage, injury and even death. We must all work together to change this dangerous culture known as distracted driving.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.