Walking around campus, it is not particularly difficult to find someone just asking to have a run in with the law. Skateboarders cruise down Perimeter Road, bikers run through stop signs and hardly anyone obeys the 15 mph speed limit down the hill to Poly Canyon Village.
But this month is devoted to bringing attention to a different — and potentially lethal — behavior. This April is California’s first Distracted Driving Awareness month, and the effort has already begun at Cal Poly.
“There’s a lot of people, a lot of vehicles and movement at the same time (on campus),” University Police Department (UPD) chief Bill Watton said. “It’s always very important to be paying attention.”
Watton said UPD will join police agencies throughout the state in enforcing a zero-tolerance policy on distracted driving this month. But because he sees Cal Poly as a learning environment, Watton said he wants to devote the first part of the month to education on distracted driving and then crack down after people become more aware.
That is not to say, however, that police will always give warnings before ticketing drivers who use their cell phone.
A 2009 study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that distracted drivers played a part in 11 percent of fatal accidents that year. That number was higher in drivers 29 and under; for them, 14 percent of fatal collisions involved distracted drivers.
Watton said the number of students he sees on their cell phones while driving around campus concerns him. He said students pose a higher risk to themselves and those around them because they have not been on the road as long as people who have been driving longer.
“The day kids get their driver license, they’re inexperienced,” Watton said. “And experience does count for something.”
But quitting cold turkey on cell phone usage in the car may be harder than it sounds.
Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong is still getting used to the California law after transitioning from his old position at Michigan State University approximately one year ago. In Michigan, there is no fine for talking on a cell phone while driving.
He said though he uses a Bluetooth device in his car to talk on the phone, he may occasionally sneak a look at a text message below the steering wheel while driving around San Luis Obispo, but only when he’s stopped.
“The last year, year-and-a-half, I’ve made a real serious effort to not talk on the cell phone (while driving),” Armstrong said.
Political science junior Daniel Outlaw said he sees nearly a dozen drivers talking on the phone when he drives to school in the morning. Though he said he does not think it is smart to drive and talk, he believes there is a better way to regulate unsafe driving.
“What would be better would be more enforcement against poor driving,” Outlaw said. “If someone’s driving poorly, that’s more important than talking on a cell phone.”
Distracted driving encompasses more than just talking on a cell phone, Watton said. Adjusting the air conditioning, turning the channel on the radio, smoking, eating or talking to a passenger can all distract someone operating a vehicle.
San Luis Obispo City Council member John Ashbaugh said it is very important for people to avoid distractions when driving. He also said he prefers to use Bluetooth when in the car, but will sometimes pull off the road to take calls.
Though there has not been a fatal accident on campus in years, Watton said it is important drivers understand just a moment of looking away from the road can cause an accident.
UPD statistics showed the agency issued 147 citations for distracted driving in 2011, and has issued 25 so far in 2012. UPD only issued 56 in 2009 and 2010 combined.
California began its ban on cell phones in the driver’s seat in July 2008. A first-time fine for talking on a cell phone while driving is $159, and second-time offenders can expect to pay at least $279.