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Is Kitsap hanging up before hitting the road?
Kevin McVicker doesn’t think talking on a cellphone while driving is a big deal.
“I usually drive with one hand anyways so I don’t really think it impairs my driving,” said McVicker, 16.
He doesn’t text and drive — careful not to take his eyes off the road — but, he added, when it comes to talking on cellphones while driving, he is not alone. He sees about five drivers texting or talking on their phones each day, he said.
“If someone calls, I pick it up,” said McVicker.
Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the change in the law that gave police officers the power to pull over drivers spotted using a cellphone, and write them a $124 ticket. But despite increased enforcement from city, county and state law enforcement, some, like McVicker, are content to try their luck since the Washington State Patrol, which focuses on traffic safety, issues tickets for cellphone texters and talkers about half the time.
Driving while talking or texting was illegal before the new law, but the Legislature’s change allows officers to pull over drivers who are doing nothing else illegal.
And in the first year, the increases are dramatic.
This year, state troopers, Kitsap sheriff’s deputies and Bremerton city police wrote 345 percent more tickets for illegal talkers and 277 percent more tickets for texters than the previous year, from 273 tickets to 1,215 tickets for talkers and 13 tickets to 49 tickets for texters.
But despite the increase in enforcement, it is not uncommon to see motorists on the highway or city streets talking on their phones.
“Bottom line, it’s a distraction,” said Trooper Krista Hedstrom, spokeswoman for the Washington State Patrol.
When drivers talk on the phone, and take a hand off the wheel, they can become so focused they can forget they are driving, Hedstrom added.
“Even if you’re ‘hands free’ it’s still a distraction,” said Hedstrom.
Those who heed the law use a handsfree device, such as a Bluetooth headset, or simply don’t gab on the phone while driving. Others use the hands free function that comes stock with many cellphones.
While some drivers continue to ignore the law, ultimately it is making a difference, added Hedstrom.
Drivers surround themselves with distractions each time they step into the car. From flipping through their iPods or radios to looking at passengers in the rearview mirror. And despite the fact that some drivers are ignoring the law altogether, Hedstrom said it is making the roads safer.
“This law is helping to eliminate one of those distractions, which is a step in the right direction,” said Hedstrom.
In addition to the increase in tickets, the percent of traffic stops that result in tickets has also increased.
Before the change, state troopers issued tickets to about 32 percent of cellphone talkers and 22 percent of texters. After the new law, those percentages rose to 47 percent for talkers and 48 for texters in the first year, according to numbers provided by the state patrol.
For P.J. Agustin, 29, using a Bluetooth or hands-free device feels uncomfortable. “I’m gonna guess that 60 percent of people don’t like putting things in their ears.”
However, the law does not indicate drivers must use a headset.
As long as they do not hold their phone directly to their ear, drivers can legally use the handsfree function, said Hedstrom.
A phone held to a person’s mouth versus to his or her ear may seem like a tough distinction for officers to make, but according to Hedstrom that is not the case.
“If it’s up to your ear we’re going to see that,” said Hedstrom.
Some find talking on speaker phone irritating. Megan Severns, 17, said she doesn’t like using it because it’s difficult for both sides of the phone to hear. “But I keep an extra watch out for cops,” Severns added.
Others, like 17-year-old Kelsey Cobain and 57-year-old Paula Downs never use their phones while driving. And not because they have felt the sting of a ticket.
“I’m a really bad multi-tasker,” said Cobain.
Downs said she always pulls over to take a phone call or simply ignores her ringing phone. “Nothing’s ever that important,” she added.
With the new law, and greater scrutiny given by officers, the number of infractions, and the percentage of drivers being written a ticket, have gone up.
Kitsap County sheriff’s deputies took the lead in writing tickets following the law change. Deputies wrote 423 tickets for talkers and 11 tickets for texters during the first 11 months of the new law, a 247 percent increase for illegal calls and a 450 percent increase for texting over the previous year. State Patrol troopers in the district that includes Kitsap County wrote 552 tickets for cellphone users and 36 for texters in the first 11 months of the new law, 303 percent more for illegal calls and 227 percent more for texting than in the previous year. Since July 1, Bremerton police have issued 240 citations for drivers talking illegally on cellphones and two citations for texting. Last year, Bremerton police only issued 14 tickets for drivers making illegal calls, and did not issue any tickets for texters.