When California Highway Patrol Central Division Chief Jim Abrames joined the force almost 30 years ago, drunken driving represented the biggest traffic safety threat confronted by officers.
Now, he says, driving under the influence has been supplanted by a new danger on the highways: drivers who are distracted -- by their cellphones, by texting, or by their passengers.
Abrames was joined Thursday in Fresno by police officers from across the central San Joaquin Valley to announce a month-long effort to crack down on distracted driving with a combination of vigorous ticket-writing and a public-education campaign during National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.
"We've made great strides in our efforts at combating drunk driving and trying to make our highways safer over the years," Abrames said. But, he added, "it was discouraging to see that fate would play a trick on all of us, and that something new would come along to replace the hazards of DUI. ... Now suddenly we have distracted driving."
Abrames pledged that police will have an intense focus on distracted driving this month. "What we really want is for you to put the cellphone down in the car, put it out of reach."
"Many of our children have grown up with keyboards in their hands," he added. "Now everybody's got a keyboard on them. ... But it's just one element of distracted driving."
Since California passed laws in 2008 to prohibit drivers from using their cellphones while driving and in 2009 extended the prohibition to text-messaging, Abrames said the CHP has seen a drop in distracted driving incidents. In the CHP's Central Division, which encompasses the San Joaquin Valley, distracted driving was a factor in 730 injury crashes in 2011; in 2012, that number fell to 405. "Part of that is enforcement, but a lot of it is education," Abrames said.
In April 2012 , Central Division CHP officers wrote more than 5,000 tickets for distracted driving; in last year's month-long campaign, the number of tickets dropped to 3,374.
"But we continue to see the cellphones, the texting, the application of makeup, reading a map, whatever the distraction is, pulling out of a drive-through and eating dinner going down the highway. It's all distracted driving," he added.
Martha and Duane Tessmer of Madera Ranchos, whose son Donovan was killed in a 2007 traffic crash before his senior year of high school, said parents need to talk to teenagers about being safe passengers as well as safe drivers.
Martha Tessmer said Donovan was a passenger in a carload of teens returning home from a night at the movies in Fresno when he and others began wrestling in the back seat without fastening their seat belts. She said the boys urged the driver to go faster, and the driver lost control of the car and hit a tree. Donovan died when he was ejected from the car.
The Tessmers were joined by three other mothers whose sons died as passengers in distracted-driving crashes. "Of the statistics you hear, of the 4,000 teenagers who die every year, two-thirds are the passengers in that car that was driven by that teen driver," Martha Tessmer said. "We need the passengers to understand that their behavior can make a road trip become unsafe ... and it could be their life that's taken."
"Our son Donovan is not to be replaced," she added as her husband held a photo of their son. "It's not something that's going to heal. You learn to cope, it becomes different, but the pain will always remain."
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