WEST SACRAMENTO — They could be in any neighborhood: a bicyclist. A jogger. A new mom pushing her baby stroller. A small boy kicking around a soccer ball.
In this case, however, the “people” were cardboard cutouts, erected amid a traffic-cone obstacle course at the California Highway Patrol Academy in West Sacramento.
Their purpose: to show visiting reporters first-hand the dangers of distracted driving. According to the CHP, the act of sending or receiving a text or phone call takes a driver’s eyes off the road an average of 4.6 seconds — during which a vehicle going 65 mph has traveled more than 100 yards, or roughly the length of a football field.
One by one, reporters from the Sacramento region, including The Davis Enterprise, got behind the wheel of a car, accelerating to 35 mph before entering the obstacle course while looking downward, as if checking out their smartphones.
“This is one of the more powerful tools that we have from an educational aspect,” said CHP Officer Mike Harris, whose agency hosted Monday’s media event along with the California Office of Traffic Safety. “We’re not saying it just to say it. We’re giving you solid evidence that the behavior of distracted driving is dangerous.”
April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, with law-enforcement agencies throughout the country cracking down on drivers who use their mobile devices — behavior that authorities say accounted for 3,328 deaths and 421,000 injuries in 2012.
While some of Monday’s test drivers made it through the course safely, others took out multiple cones and one or more cardboard “victims.” One reporter rendered the stroller-pushing mother cutout useless and pulverized the sandbag that had been used to hold it upright.
As for those who cruised through the course unscathed, “that’s what happens in real life, too,” OTS spokesman Chris Cochran said. “But tomorrow might not be the same as today. That short amount of time, that short amount of space can be very dangerous.”
To the disappointment of Enterprise photographer Sue Cockrell, poised to capture images of faux carnage from the back seat, I sailed through the course four times, hitting just one traffic cone in the process. But on subsequent tries, it took just a slight nudge of the steering wheel before I heard the crunch of numerous cones underneath the car.
My cardboard “victims” included that soccer-playing boy, his pet dog and a smiling elderly couple walking hand in hand.
“Out here it’s just a cone, but out on the road you could be hitting or killing somebody — that’s the message we’re trying to send,” CHP spokeswoman Fran Clader said.
For those fortunate enough to avoid a collision, there’s the steep cost of getting caught with phone in hand: $162 for the first violation, with subsequent tickets costing $282, not including court fees. That includes what Cochran refers to as the “red-light prayer” — texting while stopped at a traffic signal, which also is against the law.
It’s just not worth it, CHP Officer Harris said.
“It’s something that’s so easily avoided by waiting until you get to your destination, or until you can find a safe place to stop,” Harris said.
Tips for avoiding distracted driving behavior:
* Turn off your phone or put it on silent mode, then put it out of reach while driving.
* Record an outgoing message on your phone that tells callers you’re driving and will get back to them when you’re off the road.
* Adjust controls and set your song playlist before you set out on the road.
* If it’s urgent, pull over in a safe place to make a call.
* Focus on driving and avoid eating, drinking, reading, grooming, smoking or any other activity that takes your mind and eyes off the road.
Source: California Highway Patrol/California Office of Traffic Safety
— Reach Lauren Keene at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene