Motorists vs. Pedestrians: La Jolla survey says distracted driving is chief cause of accidents

By Ashley Mackin

After reporting on the Pedestrian Enforcement and Education Project (PEEP) carried out by the San Diego Police Department March 7, which emphasized pedestrian violations, La Jolla Light reached out to SDPD Traffic Division for the violations made by motorists when it comes to pedestrians.

SDPD Traffic Community Relations Officer Mark McCullough and San Diego Sheriff’s Deputy Lt. Julius Faulkner discussed these violations and how the police are cracking down on them this month.

The most pervasive motorist violation is what police refer to as “distracted driving.” McCullough said some of the other mistakes drivers make include violations of right-of-ways and failure to stop at an appropriate signal.

Distracted driving

A violation that takes many forms is driving while distracted, which is why April is National Distracted Driving Awareness month. In preparing for this month, the UC San Diego School of Medicine conducted a survey on cell phone usage and driving habits.

The survey was conducted Feb. 8-March 31, and focused on the driving habits of San Diego County residents, ages 30-64. Overall, 715 participants completed the survey. Results revealed using cell phones while operating a vehicle is the leading cause of driver distraction crashes in California.

The survey also revealed: 56 percent reported driving with a handheld phone and 92 percent drive with a hands-free phone; adults with children younger than 11 years old in the car were significantly more likely to text and to talk on a handheld phone, and 31 percent of respondents feel obliged to take a work- related call while driving.

Lt. Faulkner said while most people think of using a cell phone as the only definition of distracted driving, it can take many forms.

“Distracted driving is anything that’s preventing you from keeping your eyes on the road and driving on the roadway,” he said. “People putting on makeup in the car, people reading papers, people trying to read maps, people having conversations with passengers — that’s all distracted driving.”

For National Distracted Driving Awareness month, the California Highway Patrol and the San Diego Sheriff’s Department are cracking down on distracted drivers throughout April.

McCullough said distracted driving goes “both ways” for drivers and pedestrians. He said when people are looking at a phone or iPod; they enter the crosswalk without looking up to see if it is safe to do so. “But we don’t cite you for distracted walking ... when you are behind the wheel of a car you constitute a danger to others, so we do cite you for distracted driving.”

Right-of-way violations

McCullough said one of the biggest moving violations he sees is right-of-way violations — mostly drivers turning right who get a green light and start to turn not realizing a pedestrian is at the sidewalk waiting to cross. He said when there are pedestrians with a green “walk” sign and a vehicle turns, that motorist constitutes a right-of-way violation.

“If a person has already entered the roadway and is crossing (near) that turning vehicle, that turning vehicle has to stop and yield that right of way,” he said.

As to determining who has the right-of-way, McCullough said to keep safety in mind. If a vehicle has ample time and total visibility so they can safely proceed without posing any danger to a crossing pedestrian, then it is not a right-of-way violation.

“You just have to make sure you are not close enough to pose a danger and that’s where the violation of right- of-way is a discretionary call,” he said. This also applies to pedestrians coming from the other side of the street toward the vehicle.

“If a person starts out and a vehicle starts to pull out and can clear it without any obstruction to the pedestrian, that’s OK,” McCullough said.

A similar violation comes from drivers hurrying to turn before pedestrians enter the crosswalk, to avoid waiting for the group to cross. “As you are approaching a red light and see a pedestrian, or a group of pedestrians — and this happens in tourist- impacted areas such as the beach in La Jolla, you’ll get a whole pack of pedestrians — and a car will rapidly approach and try to do a quick stop and turn before the light turns green (for the pedestrians).”

Stopping properly

Failure to stop is a close second to right-of-way violations. Failure to stop at a red light or turning on a red arrow is considered a violation of a red light, whereas turning when there is a “No turn on red” sign is considered a violation of a sign, and both carry hefty fines (see sidebar).

McCullough said if any part of a vehicle is behind a limit line (the line designating a crosswalk or a stop sign) when the light turns red and the motorist proceeds, that is a violation of a red light.

Another violation within that scenario is not stopping due to speed. “If a person says, ‘I couldn’t stop because I was going too fast,’ that’s another violation, but the real violation is you ran the red light,” McCullough said.

Violation Penalties

■ Distracted driving citations: $159 plus court fees and administrative costs, which can surpass $250.

■ Red light citations: $500 for first offense, additional $500 if caught a second time within one year.

■ Penalties are flexible based on driving record and may be waived if the incident is a first offense.

Tips on Preventing Collisions

■ Officer Mark McCullough: “The best thing is to be a courteous driver or pedestrian.”

■ Drivers: If you see pedestrians on the corner, make the assumption they are going to continue on or step into the road. Start to slow, make eye contact if possible (if the person is looking), get that connection so you know if a person is going to cross into the roadway or if they are stopped.

■ Pedestrians: Before you step into the roadway, look at the cars coming at you. If you can make eye contact, that car is close enough to be considered a danger. You should not step in front of it. The car should be far enough back that you should not be able to make eye contact with the driver.