Starting on Monday, thousands of cops statewide cracked down on drivers using handheld phones. Last year, police wrote 400,000 tickets for talking while driving and 21,000 tickets for people texting while driving. That has officers particularly concerned because it takes drivers' eyes off the road.
Several drivers were ticketed during a ride-along with CHP Officer Ricardo Jimenez on Monday.
"If I don't see two hands on the steering wheel I'm gonna look a little closer to see what's going on with that other hand," Officer Jimenez said. "A lot of times they're on their cellphone, and there's one right there, right in front us in the Mercedes."
That driver had the misfortune of reaching and dialing on the second day of Distracted Driving Awareness Month.
According to Officer Mike Ferguson, "Section 23123 is the basic cell phone law that says you cannot be on the phone while driving unless it is a hands free device."
"But my right hand was on the steering wheel, sir," said the driver who was pulled over. To which Officer Jimenez responded, "But you had the phone in your right hand, so it's not hands free."
The CHP says drivers are 23 times more likely to have accidents when distracted. We've seen two examples in the past few days. Near U.C. Davis last week, the driver of a big rig on Interstate 80 choked on something he was eating, and then collided head-on with a BMW, killing two people. And in Sonoma County Sunday night, officials say a woman died when she went off the road while using GPS on her phone.
And although using a cellphone is the most common form of distracted driving and the only one that merits a ticket under state law, CHP spokesman Officer Elon Steers says drivers who eat, change clothes, or put on makeup are just as likely to break other traffic laws, such as by speeding, following other cars too closely and drifting out of lanes.
Just to be clear, just because you have a headset on your phone, that's not enough. If you touch your phone at all, even to turn it on, you're in violation of the law. There is an exception to the rule -- if the phone is mounted to the dash, you're allowed to touch it.
Last year alone, 3,000 people died in crashes blamed on distracted driving.
The first-time citation for texting or talking on a cell phone while driving is $159 in California.
(Bay City News contributed to this report)