SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Mary Ann Lahann was inching past the Bay Bridge toll plaza when ... wham! Rear-ended by a driver with her head down, texting away.
It's no surprise to the 51-year-old engineer from Carmichael that cell phone use and texting now rank as the biggest safety worry on our roads, according to a survey released Thursday by the state Office of Traffic Safety. Motorists consider phone use more dangerous than speeders, tailgaters or drunken drivers.
Those fretting about drivers using cell phones more than doubled from a year ago, to 39 percent, a "dramatic" increase, according to safety officials.
And though 55 percent claimed they didn't once hold a phone while driving in the past month, 46 percent say they have made driving mistakes while talking on cell phones, and 60 percent say they have been hit or nearly hit by other drivers who were talking or texting.
"The person behind me just flat-out didn't stop," Lahann said. "When I got out and went to her window, she was sitting there kind of stunned. She said, 'I was on my phone! I didn't see you.' Like that was an excuse!"
In 2010, 22 percent of drivers thought speeding and aggressive driving were the biggest problems, followed by cell phone talking and texting, which totaled 18 percent combined. In the latest survey, speeding and aggressive driving dropped to 18 percent. Drunken driving was next on the list, with 13 percent considering it the biggest danger on the roads.
"I would agree (cell phone use) is the No. 1 distraction," said California Highway Patrol Officer D.J. Sarabia of San Jose. "Oftentimes we see drivers weaving in and out of lanes or driving on the shoulders. We stop to investigate what we may think is a possible DUI driver only to find out it was someone talking on the phone, hands-free or not."
Added Alameda County Sheriff Tom Rodrigues: "I see drivers on their cell phones every day. It's as if the laws don't even exist. I write every one that I possibly can. With all of the innovative tools out there for hands-free use, I am at a loss as to why people don't use them."
The CHP has issued nearly 475,000 tickets to drivers violating the hands-free law since it went into effect in July 2008. Police estimate local departments have issued a similar number of tickets over that period.
The survey comes at a time federal officials have begun a campaign against distracted driving by targeting teens. This weekend a safety video dubbed "OMG" will begin playing during previews at some movie theaters and at gas stations with video screens at the pump in the Bay Area and nationwide.
The price of a ticket is about $159. A bill to double that amount and apply the same law to bicyclists was vetoed by California Gov. Jerry Brown.
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Data on how many crashes can be directly linked to cell phone use are inconclusive. Some studies say it's a huge problem, while others point to an overall decline in crashes and injuries and say concerns are overstated.
"Speeding, aggressive driving, drunk driving all are very serious and actually kill more people than cell phone use," said Chris Cochran, a spokesman for the traffic safety group. "But crashes from cell phone use are a fast-growing problem and one that the public is correct in noticing and, hopefully, reversing early."
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One ray of encouraging news is that a larger percentage of drivers (40 percent) say they talk less on their phones while driving than last year (35 percent) because of the hands-free law.
Meanwhile, police say they are getting better at spotting cell phone abusers who try to hide phones in their hair or hoodie, let the phone drop to the floor or pretend they are scratching their face or playing with earrings.
Safety studies say a driver texting while going 55 mph can cover the length of a football field without looking at the road.
"What if a pedestrian steps into a crosswalk? What if a child runs across the street? What if the vehicle in front of you stops to avoid a hazard?" asked CHP Officer Sarah Jackson of Aptos. "The consequences are permanent."
Lahann says she can now spot a cell phone driver so easily.
"They cannot maintain a steady speed. Up to 70, down to 50, then up again," she said. "In the No. 1 lane on freeways."
And if being rear-ended wasn't enough, Lahann had another bad experience one day as she walked through the parking lot at a grocery store. Without warning, a teen texting while on his bicycle ran into her as he rode head down, no hands on the handlebars, texting like mad.
"I saw him at the last moment and jumped to the side," she said. "His front wheel swiped me. He wobbled and almost went down. No apology, just a swear word."
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