Delving into Distracted Driving

San Francisco has depended on state and national data to determine its policies on distracted driving — until now.

Traffic is bad. Inching along Oak Street, you make a right onto Octavia Boulevard — and immediately get stuck in a line of cars waiting for the light to change. The radio stations are all playing crap, and the density of cars is not an optimistic sign for the state of the Bay Bridge. You’re bored and impatient — and then your phone’s message alert dings. Do you pick it up? Unlock it? See who’s texting you? And, maybe, respond?

If so, you’ll be one of millions of drivers in the United States who have been distracted by technology while behind the wheel. But the simple act of picking up a cellphone can be catastrophic: Drivers are six times more likely to crash from distraction than from driving drunk. In California, distraction is a factor in 80 percent of crashes. And the National Traffic Safety Administration finds that drivers who text while driving are 23 times more likely to be in a traffic crash than those who let their phones be. At this point in history, fatal collisions involving a distracted driver are flying past fatalities caused by alcohol, drugs, speeding, or not using a seatbelt. In an odd twist for the future of humanity, touching one’s phone when behind the wheel has become a massive public-health crisis.

Although the problem appears to be growing worse, it isn’t a new issue for government agencies. The data above is pulled from national and state studies, where millions of dollars have been dedicated to better understanding the psychology behind distraction behind the wheel, and supporting educational campaigns that plead with drivers to “park the phone,” because “it can wait.”

But thus far, no studies have been done on how prevalent the issue is in San Francisco — until now. A group of planners from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency applied for a grant from the National Safety Council last year, and got it. A $111,393 budget will now be dedicated to a 1-year study of exactly where, when, and why our city’s drivers use their phones — and how to stop them.

John Knox White, a planning programs manager at the SFMTA, says that the money will fill in some vital areas in local distracted-driving research, which until now has mostly come from the San Francisco Police Department. But the fact that cops have to catch drivers in the act makes quantifying how big the issue is a challenge.

“We all see this every day, but we rely heavily on police citation data to understand what’s happening on our streets,” Knox White says. “It’s very difficult for the police who were not on site when a collision happened to cite drivers for distracted driving after the fact. There was a big hole in our data, and we saw an opportunity.

“We don’t know what the extent of this problem is, but we are going to get it,” he adds.

With the funding, the opportunity to dive into collecting this data is now possible — but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen fast. Juliet Wilson, a transportation planner at the SFMTA, is in charge of deploying teams to manually count people who use their phones as they drive. Over the span of two weeks, SFMTA staff stood on busy street corners for a total of 70 hours, spying on drivers who used their phones.

Once you start looking, you’ll find people doing it everywhere. “You’d be surprised how blatant people can be using cellphones when driving,” Wilson says. “It’s very easy to spot.”

In addition to the physical presence of employees counting, the SFMTA released a crowdsourcing survey in November 2017 so that the community at large could report hotspots for distracted drivers. More than 1,000 responses have rolled in over the past two months, and the data is starting to show patterns: Eighth and Bryant streets in SoMa each have a dark red cluster of reports, for example — as does First Street.

Part of the prevalence may be due to a general lack of understanding over what exactly the law is. Most Californians know that holding a cellphone up to your ear and driving with one hand is illegal. But other laws are more subtle: As of January 2017, it’s been illegal for drivers to hold a phone in their hand at any point while operating a vehicle. Phones can be used, but only when mounted on the dashboard, and under voice control. A single touch on the phone is allowed, but switching between apps, typing in addresses into Google Maps, or flipping through contacts are all banned while the car is in motion.

Laws aside, it’s truly a gargantuan task to get people to stop checking their Facebook messages, retweets, podcasts, or email while driving — and a psychological one. “We’ve built these things to say, ‘Hey, pay attention to this’, and we have to change that response to ‘Don’t pay attention to that in certain circumstances,’ ” Knox White says.

A proven method of deterring drivers from behaving badly is, unfortunately, ticketing them. People who have been pulled over on a stretch of road for speeding are more likely to slow down the next time they travel down that same street, and a habit-breaking tactic for preventing drivers from using a phone while driving may be the hefty $162 ticket attached to a citation. Repeat offenders can shell out as much as $300, an uncomfortably large fee for giving in to the curiosity of who liked your post on Facebook while waiting at a red light.

In collaboration with the SFMTA’s study, SFPD will up traffic patrols on three major streets — which also fall on Vision Zero’s list of high-injury corridors, or the 12 percent of streets where 70 percent of severe and fatal crashes happen. In the coming months, the cops plan to target hotspots like Harrison Street between Sixth and Eighth streets, Octavia Boulevard between Market and Page streets, and Geneva Avenue between Mission Street and San Jose Avenue.

Last but not least, S.F. residents will start to see more anti-distracted driving campaigns around town. Several new ads have already been placed on Muni buses, alerting drivers to the fact that driving distracted is more dangerous than driving drunk. Facebook quizzes and other online education efforts are in the works as well.

But how successful these efforts will be remains to be seen, and the SFMTA staff is realistic about the impact.

“It’s a short 3-month program — it’s not going to change the world,” Knox White says about the initial period of enforcement. “But by May, we’ll have an evaluation on if this is working. We’re going from billboards to ‘Can we actually change people’s behavior?’ ”

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor. |  @TheBestNuala

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