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Local law enforcement including Bakersfield Police Chief Lyle Martin, left, CHP Captain Scott Loetscher and Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood hold a driving awareness event last year at the CHP office in Bakersfield to bring attention to the dangers of driving while distracted.

People who typically use their cellphone while driving may want to be extra cautious this month if they want to avoid a citation.

The California Highway Patrol, Bakersfield Police Department and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office are stepping up enforcement as part of National Distracted Driving Awareness Month. Officers and deputies out on patrol will be paying extra attention to people exhibiting signs of distracted driving.

“Cell phones remain one of the top distractions for drivers,” said BPD Chief Lyle Martin in a statement. “Like any bad habit, it can be hard to break, but this habit can have life-altering consequences. That text or phone call will never be worth losing a life over.”

To underscore the danger and seriousness of distracted driving, leaders from Kern County’s law enforcement agencies are joining with the Auto Club of Southern California to hold a public event on Thursday at Truxtun Park.

BPD Chief Martin, Sheriff Donny Youngblood and CHP Captain Scot Loetscher will speak at the event, as well as ACSC Communications and Programs Manager Doug Shupe.

In addition, distracted driving survivor DeeDee Gonzalez will talk about her experiences and encourage others not to follow in her footsteps.

The event will get underway at 10 a.m.

According to the CHP, 66 people were killed and more than 6,500 injured in 2017 in distracted driving-related collisions. Law enforcement agencies have been working to reduce those deaths and injuries through enforcement efforts.

Last April, CHP Public Information Officer Robert Rodriguez said the Bakersfield division issued nearly 2,500 citations to distracted drivers, significantly more than they issue in a typical month.

BPD has seen a similar trend. Public Information Officer Nathan McCauley said officers issued 978 distracted-driving citations last year, of which about 545 were issued in April alone.

First-time offenders face a fine between $160 and $180, according to CHP. The amount of fines repeat offenders pay are up to a judge to decide.

Despite efforts to deter distracted driving, usage remains high statewide. A 2018 survey by the California Office of Traffic Safety found that out of a sample size of 30,000 people, 4.5 percent of drivers still use their cellphones illegally while driving, up from 3.5 percent in 2017.

Locally, Rodriguez said usage is still high despite education and enforcement efforts.

“Everywhere we go, we see people driving 80 miles an hour with their phones out. Sometimes they put them right on the steering wheel,” he said. “It’s like second nature for people to check their phones while they’re in a car.”

McCauley said BPD’s distracted-driving citations have hovered between 900 and 1,000 a year over the past couple of years.

Under state law, cell phones can only be used in a vehicle in a hands-free way, via bluetooth or other device. However, Rodriguez said he feels there is still some level of distraction and risk for those who choose that option.

Joseph Luiz can be reached at 395-7368 or by email at jluiz@bakersfield.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @JLuiz_TBC. 

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