State supports increasing fines for distracted driving

Last year, over 20,000 tickets were given out statewide for distracted driving. That’s up from over 14,000 tickets in 2015.

Police officers handed out tickets with $250 fines. But if the state gets its way, that penalty will jump to $750.

State Dept. of Transportation deputy director Ed Sniffen said it was their idea to raise the amount. “It came from the Department of Transportation. When we look at our numbers, it’s all about saving lives. We understand that 75 percent of fatalities that occur on our highways are absolutely avoidable.”

Compared to 93 fatalities the state tallied in 2015, that figure jumped to 120 last year. The DOT broke the numbers even further and found that nine deaths in the last three years were caused by distracted driving.

Sniffen says he wants those numbers down to zero.

“It’s a big hit,” he said. “That’s the point. We’ve been trying to go out with our educational programs to appeal to people’s hearts. But now, we’re going to go after their checkbooks. If we need to do this to get their attention, then so be it.”

We spoke with driving instructor Steve Wong who thinks tripling the fines are a good idea.

“I’m on the road 10 hours a day,” he said. “Pretty much at any traffic light, if you look left and right, somebody is on their phone.”

While we were on Nimitz Highway Monday, over a five-minute period, we counted four people using their cellphones, either while driving or sitting at the traffic light.

Sniffen says the DOT regularly meets with police departments around the state and he says they’re “mostly on board” with the idea.

“But they have concerns about tripling the fines for distracted driving. They’re saying some of the officers may be concerned with ticketing people if fines are too high and I totally understand.

“I know a lot of people think these fines are excessive,” Sniffen said, “but if you choose to not break the law, it won’t affect you. If you get ticketed, I think you’re lucky. You don’t have to worry about being a statistic — especially a fatality, or causing a fatality.”

We checked with the DOT and learned the money from the tickets would go to the state highway fund. We’ll keep you posted on the proposals.

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