New state law increases distracted-driving penalties

On the eve of the enactment of a statewide distracted driving law carrying stiffer penalties, Maui police officers stepped up enforcement to give out 265 citations to drivers using cellphones last week.

“It’s still a problem,” said Lt. Ricky Uedoi, commander of the police Traffic Section. “We’re hoping that with this last enforcement effort, people will get the message.”

The distracted driving enforcement was done islandwide June 16 to Saturday.

“The department’s enforcement effort is specifically designed to change behavior of drivers who practice what has been scientifically proven to be deadly – using a cellphone while driving,” said Police Chief Gary Yabuta.

The state Department of Transportation reported that in 2007, 33 percent or 2,871 of the 8,770 collisions statewide were attributed to inattention to driving.

Under the current Maui County ordinance banning the use of hand-held mobile electronic devices while driving, a ticket carries a $97 fine.

Starting Monday, the new state law makes the offense a traffic crime instead of an infraction and requires a court appearance, Uedoi said.

Fines also will be increasing to $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second offense within a year and $300 for a third offense within two years. The fines double for drivers in school or construction zones.

In addition, the state law bans all use of mobile electronic devices, even when hands free, by drivers under age 18.

In carrying out distracted driver and seat-belt enforcement, police at times have a spotter in vehicles or on foot positioned to observe violations. The spotter will then tell other officers to stop the vehicles and issue citations for offenses.

“The common thing is people think they can try and be sneaky and hold the phone low and use a speaker phone feature,” Uedoi said. “It’s still obvious, when we use the spotter, that they have it in their possession and are still driving.”

Although most distracted driving citations are issued for cellphone use, drivers also can be ticketed for using Global Positioning Systems, MP3 players, cameras and other hand-held electronic devices with data functions, Uedoi said.

Kihei resident Kevin Olson said he was ticketed June 11 for using a camera to take a photo of what he described as an unmarked Maui Police Department “spotter van” as he drove by a parking lot on South Kihei Road near Lipoa Street.

A week later, on June 18, Olson said he was cited for violating Maui County’s sign ordinance when he held a sign warning of another police traffic enforcement effort on South Kihei Road. Olson said his sign – saying the “MPD spotter van” was parked nearby and to “Be Smart” – was taken by the officer who issued the citation.

Olson said he was standing near Azeka Makai shopping center and was careful to stay 6 feet away from the pavement but was ticketed for being too close to a crosswalk. He complained that others in the same area have been warned but not cited for violating the county sign ordinance and haven’t had their signs confiscated.

By holding the sign, Olson said he was exercising his First Amendment right.

“It’s just raising awareness, letting them know they’re writing tickets like crazy,” Olson said. “Hopefully, they’ll be made aware, and they won’t be on the phones and won’t be doing the things that they aren’t supposed to be doing.”

Fines collected from traffic enforcement go to the state general fund.

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