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Officer targets distracted drivers

CMPD Officer Kha Bao will listen to drivers' excuses but that doesn't mean he's buying them.

April 09, 2014|By Jeremiah Dobruck
  • A motorist appears to be texting while driving through an intersection. Local law enforcement agencies are cracking down on distracted driving in April.
A motorist appears to be texting while driving through… (Mel Melcon, Los…)

It took less than two minutes for Officer Kha Bao to spot someone talking on a cell phone.

Bao had been sitting in his car, tucked into a driveway near a 55 Freeway offramp in Costa Mesa, watching as rush-hour commuters passed in front of him.

Less than five feet from his cruiser, a blue BMW with a Dodgers' license plate frame rolled slowly past. The driver held an upside-down smart phone close to his mouth as he talked and looked straight ahead.

"I don't think he even realized we were there," Bao said as he hit the gas and then the brakes to swerve around a corner and pull over the car. "That's what part of distracted driving is."

After writing a ticket for about $160, Bao drove back to his stakeout, watching for more inattentive motorists exiting the freeway.

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For an extra six hours tacked onto his shift April 3, Bao looked specifically for drivers using cell phones.

He worked the distracted-driving beat during that overtime as part of a statewide crackdown during the month of April.

Within another two minutes, a woman in a minivan drove past Bao in the same pose — cellphone on speakerphone held just below her mouth with the other hand on the wheel.

"People, for some reason, they either disregard or they don't understand the word 'hands-free'," Bao said.

Grants distributed through the California Office of Traffic Safety let police departments statewide pay for extra enforcement on specific days this month.

Costa Mesa, Irvine and Newport Beach, and about 200 other police departments, ran operations April 3 and Tuesday targeting talking or texting drivers. They'll do the same April 17 and 22.

According to the OTS and the Department of Motor Vehicles, officers wrote 57,000 tickets for cell phone use in April 2013 out of about 426,000 that year.

Bao — who has worked traffic in Costa Mesa for about five years — said he can normally go days without writing a cell phone-related ticket. On some shifts, all he has time to do is bounce from one traffic collision to the next.

But when an OTS grant lets him focus just on distracted drivers, he can write those tickets continuously.

He once handed out 32 in a 10-hour shift. Within two hours April 3, he wrote five.

"I'm tied up here writing this ticket," Bao said after pulling over his first distracted driver about 5:30 that evening. "Imagine how many more there are."

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