It was just a quick phone call. The car was stopped at a red light, anyway. A wireless headset wasn't working. Those explanations didn't get any cell phone-using drivers out of traffic tickets Tuesday, which was one of two "zero tolerance" days for those caught violating the 2-year-old state law.
The California Highway Patrol's Stockton and Sacramento offices, along with others including Lodi and Galt police, looked for violators and will do so again next Wednesday.
"You can see, he's looking at his cell phone, not at his surroundings. That's how accidents happen," CHP Officer Angel Arceo said as he maneuvered through traffic to pull over a violator.
In July 2008, it became illegal in California to use a cell phone while driving, unless the driver is using it "hands-free" and is over the age of 18. Wireless, or BlueTooth, devices are OK, as is using one earbud. The phone's speaker may be used, but only if the user isn't holding the phone.
That's what got Daniel Tonelli in trouble Tuesday. He was stopped at a red light and was talking to his wife on the speakerphone, while holding his cell phone. Arceo watched from inside the marked CHP car directly behind him.
"I was stopped at a light; I wasn't driving while I was talking," Tonelli said, adding that he's got a good driving record.
The good news for Tonelli is that the violation doesn't count against his driving record and won't change his insurance rates. The more unpleasant news is that while the base fine is about $20, additional court fees will make the ticket about $100 for the first offense.
Realtor Lai Khoonsivong was wearing a hands-free headset Tuesday, but when it wouldn't work, he held his phone up to his other ear — in time for Arceo to see him.
While Arceo checked his record — it was clean — and wrote the ticket, Khoonsivong spent the time trying to get his phone and headset to communicate with each other. It never did work.
That was Lodi resident Chris Ellsworth's problem, too.
"I do (have a headset); I'm just technologically challenged," he said when Arceo pulled him over for holding his phone while driving.
Ellsworth said he hadn't had a ticket in 27 years, since he was caught speeding on Lodi Avenue. The contractor drives about 20,000 miles a year and had more than one reason to be disappointed in the ticket.
"My wife has never had a ticket. We've been married 25 years, so it's kind of a running joke," he said.
The CHP compiled statistics and announced that since the law went into effect, 1,200 crashes statewide have listed cell phone use as a contributing factor. Of those crashes, 16 people died and 850 people were injured.
Since July 2008, CHP officers have issued 244,000 citations to hands-free violators. Money from CHP tickets goes to the state's general fund, with a small amount going to the county in which the ticket was issued.
Arceo said he hears complaints from citizens, asking why officers aren't ticketing cell phone users. When the law first went into effect, more people followed the law, he said. Tuesday's and next week's zero-tolerance days are aimed at reminding people to obey it.
"If giving a citation for using their phone prevents them from getting in a crash later, I'd rather write a citation," Arceo said. "Maybe we can change their behavior."
Contact reporter Layla Bohm at firstname.lastname@example.org.