Thousands ticketed across Nevada in first 3 months of cell phone law

It's obvious not only to other drivers but to law enforcement that far too many people just don't get it: Using a cell phone to talk or text while driving is against the law.

In the first three months of the new law banning use of hand-held phones while driving, the Nevada Highway Patrol's Northern Command issued 1,645 tickets.

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police issued 2,261 tickets in the first quarter of this year, according to the Office of Traffic Safety. (Other agency-specific data, including from the Carson City Sheriff's Office, was not available Friday.)

Statewide in the first quarter of the year, 1,007 drivers were convicted of a first-time violation, according to Tom Jacobs of the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles.

Four drivers have already been cited twice, he said.

NHP public affairs officer Chuck Allen said troopers are also issuing lots of warnings - 314 from Jan. 1 through March 31.

Carson City Undersheriff Steve Albertsen said the warnings by his deputies are going primarily to people who don't understand that the ban applies even while a driver is stopped at a traffic light.

"We see them on the phone or texting while stopped at stop signs and stoplights," he said. "If you're stopping your vehicle to use your phone, make sure you pull off the road."

Albertsen said that doesn't mean just stopping on the shoulder of the highway - it means off the road, in a parking lot or elsewhere.

Ann Louhela, who lives in Sparks and commutes to Western Nevada College for her job, said she thinks it's the best law that was ever passed, even though everyone isn't as aware as they should be.

"When you're driving 70 mph and see someone in the fast lane going 50, you know they're texting. I've been guilty a couple of times, but I generally pull over to call and then drive while talking. I think we are all better drivers when we are not talking on our cell phones," Louhela said.

She believes young people are the worst, though.

"They aren't experienced, and suddenly, you put a cell phone in their hands, and it's even worse."

State troopers in the Reno-Carson City area conducted a distracted-driving enforcement campaign earlier this month. Allen, too, said using a phone while at a stoplight was the most common violation observed.

"Even though the vehicle is stopped, one is still operating a motor vehicle," he said.

He said the NHP had hoped the more than 600 warnings issued before the law went into effect Jan. 1 would get the message out better than it has.

According to Albertsen, the problem is habit: "When it rings, they pick it up."

He said some drivers realize they're breaking the law only when they see a deputy or trooper eyeing them.

Some drivers, on the other hand, are just ignoring the law. This reporter saw a 20-something woman in a dark blue Honda Civic driving south through Washoe Valley on Thursday morning with both hands together clutching her phone atop the steering wheel, texting at 70 mph.

Carson City resident Kris Yetter, 20, said she believes she's learning to adapt.

"My job is on the phone - I'm on the phone all day long. There have been times I've had to sneak, but I really try to pull over, because it's not safe," Yetter said.

Another Carson City young adult, Chelsea Lavender, 22, said there are plenty of ways to obey the law so, she's amazed at how many people are disregarding it.

"I've got a T-Mobile Galaxy S, and it reads me my texts, so I'm not really affected by the new law. My Bluetooth is completely compatible with my phone, but it definitely seems the same out there," Lavender said.

"I thought it would change things out there, but it might be worse now. Now, instead of texting with on top of their steering wheels, they're texting underneath, so it's very scary," she said.

Lawmakers had hoped the costs of breaking the new law would be a deterrent.

Jacobs said the penalties aren't small - especially for repeat offenders. The fine for a first offense is $50, but the ticket isn't classified as a moving violation so it isn't reported to the insurance company.

Carson Justice Court Administrator Maxine Cortes, however, said that's before administrative assessments and other fees are added on, more than doubling the cost of that first offense to $112.

For repeat offenses within a seven-year period, the penalties are more serious. The second is a $100 fine ($192 total with fees), and the third draws a $250 fine ($352 with fees).

What's potentially even more costly, however, is that repeat offenses are considered moving violations, each of which deducts four points from the driver's license and is reported to the driver's insurance company. Since a driver has only 12 points before losing that license, three repeat offenses would turn him or her into a pedestrian for the year.

For comparison, a minimum speeding ticket only deducts one point, while a DUI takes all 12.

Other four-demerit offenses include failing to yield right of way, passing a school bus with signals flashing, and driving more than 30 mph over the speed limit. Lawmakers obviously classified cellphone use as a serious safety problem when they passed the law.

Chris Perry, head of the state Department of Public Safety, said when the law first took effect, some 20,000 accidents on Nevada roads have been blamed on distracted driving, and that an estimated 50 have died in the past five years as a result of accidents in which drivers were distracted.

• Nevada Appeal staff writer Sandi Hoover contributed to this story.


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