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Kauai police crack down on drivers using cellphones

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Castle High School student Gabriella Pintor, 18, tried to navigate a course while holding a cellphone Saturday during the “Distracted Driving” segment of the state Department of Education’s 21st annual student driving competition at Aloha Stadium.

LIHUE >>  Kauai police say they have issued 539 tickets to people using cellphones while driving, an offense that can come with a pricey $300 fine for first-time law-breakers.

Hawaii officials are cracking down on the use of hand-held mobile electronic devices while driving and charging fines far well above the national average of $112 for the offense, The Garden Island reported.

The state bans the use of hand-held devices while driving and it’s also illegal for drivers under age 18 to talk on the phone, even if using a hands-free device.

Violating such laws can result in a fine between $250 and $300. It doesn’t quite compete with Alaska’s $10,000 fine for phoning and driving, but it’s higher than penalties in most other states.

"All forms of distracted driving are dangerous, but studies continue to show that texting/messaging while driving is the most dangerous, and significantly increases the likelihood of a crash," Assistant Chief of the Patrol Services Bureau Roy Asher wrote in an email to The Garden Island.

During the fiscal year 2014, police departments statewide issued more than 11,000 citations for distracted driving. Hawaii Department of Transportation Director Ford Fuchigami agrees that texting is a particularly worrying form of distraction.

"While anything that takes your eyes off of the road, hands off of the wheel, or mind off of the task of driving is a hazard, there is a heightened concern about the risks of texting while driving because it combines all three types of distraction — visual, manual and cognitive," Fuchigami said in a statement.

Kauai police spokeswoman Sarah Blane said the department doesn’t have statistics on the number of crashes caused by texting.

Nationwide, 3,154 people were killed and 424,000 injured in 2013 by crashes involving distracted drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Drivers in their 20s make up 27 percent of distracted drivers in fatal crashes, and drivers under 20 text more than any other age group.

"For them, it’s automatic to start texting without even thinking about it," said Garden Island Racing Association President Tony Ricci. "Now they’re behind a wheel and doing it, and it becomes so intuitive that they’re not even thinking of what they’re doing. They really have to emphasize that phones have to be out of your hands."

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