NAWILIWILI — Inside the Nawiliwili Council Chambers on Wednesday morning, Kaua‘i Police Department Chief Darryl Perry spoke about the dangers of driving while holding a cell phone.
Outside, only a few minutes earlier, a woman holding a cell phone against her ear drove a gray compact SUV out of the parking lot.
Hawai‘i is one of seven states that does not have a ban on cell phones while driving. But each county in Hawai‘i has its own ordinance, and Kaua‘i County has a more descriptive and easier-to-enforce law, KPD Lt. Mark Scribner said at the County Council meeting.
Ordinance 892, banning the use of mobile electronic devices while operating a vehicle, went into effect May 23, 2010. Though the bill was crafted primarily to address cell phone use, it also prohibits the use of other devices, such as cameras and music players, video games and laptops among others.
More than a year after the law went into effect, police officers are issuing more citations than ever — 204 citations just last April — and drivers may be in even greater danger than before.
“Since the law is in effect, we noticed more people being more distracted because they’re trying to hide their cell phones and their texting devices,” Scribner said. “We’re trying to think of innovative ways to catch those people doing that.”
He said it is difficult to know how many crashes on Kaua‘i were linked to cell phone use, because most minor accidents are self-reported and the driver most likely will deny using a cell phone. But at least one recent fatal crash happened while a female driver had been texting while driving.
“She got into a crash and passed away,” Scribner said. “In that type of crash we do the research and find out.”
Citations and warnings
Scribner said that before the ordinance went into effect, KPD made an effort toward community and visitor education by making announcements on the radio and distributing flyers to rental car companies. Newspaper articles were also published. Even after the ordinance went into effect, he said, educational efforts continued.
“We are fully aware that even the best laws may be ignored, if they are not enforced,” Scribner said.
KPD issued 24 citations in the first week the law went into effect. Over the course of the next seven months, KPD issued an average of 53 citations per month. Scribner said many more drivers were stopped, but KPD gave a lot of warnings instead of citations.
Last January, the council approved KPD to receive a $28,000 state grant to be used toward a public education campaign and law enforcement overtime to help crack down on distracted driving.
Just as promised, KPD started issuing more citations. In January, 42 citations were issued. The number climbed to 53 in February, 117 in March and 204 in April. In May the numbers went down to 119.
The average number of citations so far for 2011 amounts to 107 per month and, if the trend continues, the average will climb.
Perry said he usually rides his bicycle around Lihu‘e and throughout the months, he has seen all sorts of drivers, from the elderly to the young, driving old or newer cars, violating the ordinance.
It’s “unbelievable” they are not aware of the law, judging by the large amount of public education and media exposure, he said.
“It’s a matter of choice. It’s a matter of whether or not at that particular time their need exceeds the requirements of the law,” Perry said. “So we’ll continue in our efforts and hopefully, during that time period, we won’t have any crashes attributed to distracted driving.”
Scribner said as long as drivers have a Blue Tooth or other similar device, they can use the phone, but they still have to pull over and turn off the engine to dial their phone.
“And certainly that doesn’t solve the problem,” said Perry, adding that last week a driver who ran two red traffic lights admitted to be using a Blue Tooth device.
“The issue is distracted driving,” he said. “Hand-held devices make it even more dangerous than having a Blue Tooth.”
Scribner said statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that in 2008 more than 800,000 vehicles nationwide were driven each day by someone using a hand-held cell phone.
Furthermore, 6,000 people nationwide died in 2008 as a result of distracted driving — 16 percent of all fatal crashes — and 500,000 people were injured.
A study from the Harvard Center of Risk Analysis reported that cell phone use contributes to 6 percent of all crashes, according to Scribner.
That percentage would translate to 636,000 crashes annually, resulting in 2,600 deaths, 12,000 serious injuries and 330,000 injuries.
The annual cost of crashes caused by cell phone use, he said, is estimated at $43 billion.
• Léo Azambuja, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or lazambuja@ thegardenisland.com.