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Road gadgets fill coffers

More than a half-million dollars has been paid by drivers defying the year-old mobile-device ban

By Gene Park

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 02:20 a.m. HST, Jul 09, 2010


A year after the islandwide ban on using mobile devices while driving began, 7,654 citations had been issued as of Wednesday, pulling in more than $500,000 in fines and fees.

Of the total citations, 1,838 were issued last year and 5,816 were issued this year, according to state court records.

The county ordinance, the first of its kind in the state, went into effect July 1, 2009. Since then the remaining three counties enacted their own versions of the law.

The impact on traffic safety is difficult to quantify because of an unwillingness by drivers to admit mobile device use after fender-benders, a Honolulu police official said.

But the impact on state coffers is $517,338 in revenue from July 1, 2009, through Wednesday. That is the amount of fines and fees collected in association with the 1-year-old restriction, according to the state Judiciary.

First-time offenders are hit with a $97 fine.

When it comes to knowing what the law is, Honolulu residents are no n00bs (textspeak for "newbies"). Maj. Thomas Nitta, head of the Honolulu Police Department Traffic Division and an original author of the law, said media saturation helped to raise awareness.

"They know it's against the law, they just have to be accountable for their actions," Nitta said. "It's just a matter of being accountable for your actions."

A violation occurs when the driver is holding an electronic device, be it cell phone or music player. This could be for whatever reason, from texting to changing playlists. Nitta said that language was written as a way to deflect criticisms of it being unenforceable.

ABOUT THE LAW

Section 15-24.23 of the Revised Ordinances of Honolulu prohibits the use of mobile electronic devices while operating a motor vehicle.

» Mobile electronic device refers to any hand-held or other portable electronic equipment capable of providing wireless and/or data communication between two or more persons or of providing amusement, including but not limited to a cellular phone, text messaging device, paging device, personal digital assistant, laptop computer, video game or digital photographic device.
» The law does not prohibit the use of audio equipment or any equipment installed in a motor vehicle for the purposes of providing navigation, emergency assistance to the operator of the motor vehicle or video entertainment to the passengers in the rear seats of a motor vehicle.
» "Use" or "using" means holding a mobile electronic device while operating a motor vehicle.
» The law exempts the use of cellular phones for emergency 911 calls. It also allows the use of hands-free devices, like Bluetooth headsets.

"I have not heard anything of it being not enforceable," Nitta said. "We consider use if you're just holding it in your hand. It's very easy to enforce."

It also appears to be easy to prosecute. There were 6,499 cases that ended in a court judgment. About 3.5 percent, or 228 cases, were either dismissed or had the charged dropped by prosecutors.

There were 1,579 cases that ended in default judgment, meaning the defendant did not show up to court. The court would fine the drivers, some who were visitors, through a collection agency.

Honolulu police would enforce the law year round, but they had two monthlong periods of high enforcement. The first was shortly after the law went into effect, in September, when officers cited up to 800 drivers.

"This was advertised," Nitta said. "In March to April we did an unannounced citation enforcement, and we gave about 1,200 citations."

The Big Island was the second island county to implement a similar law. The law went into effect in January, and since then there have been 384 citations. Big Island drivers face a fine of up to $150.

There were 15 cases that involved accidents, said Sgt. Kelly Kaaumoana-Matsumoto of the Hawaii Police Department traffic services section. The fine can go up as much as $500 if the mobile device use caused a collision.

Kaaumoana-Matsumoto said Hawaii County has sent letters to registered owners of vehicles regarding the law as part of its educational outreach.

"There's still people out there doing it," she said. "But now citizens call it in when they do see someone violating the law. Many of them here do care about everyone's safety."

Kauai's law went into effect May 23. There have been 107 citations since then, according to Kauai County spokeswoman Mary Daubert. Kauai violators are fined $97—and up to $147 if cited in a school zone or construction area.

Maui is the last county to implement a similar law. It went into effect Tuesday. Maui police officials said no citations were issued as of Wednesday. A first-offense fine is up to $150.

Nitta said he has heard anecdotal evidence that the law is working: Family members often remind each other not to use the phone while driving, and drivers are more conscious in not visibly holding the phone.

"The problem with this is that it goes to self-reporting," Nitta said. "People are not going to be raising their hand and say, 'Yes, I was using the phone before the accident.'"

Nitta said he feels the educational outreach has done its part. The only thing that remains, he said, is the personal choice of whether to violate it.

"When people violate this ordinance, they're usually doing it from personal choice, not out of ignorance," he said. "They're putting their self-importance over the safety of others."






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