At a meeting of a neighborhood group just before the holidays, representatives of the Santa Monica Police Department reacted with grins when my question to them suggesting ‘stings’ to catch drivers texting or using mobile devices illegally came up in a Q & A session. They weren’t chuckling because they thought the idea was silly; far from it: They already had plans on the books to do just that in the New Year. Although “sting” is probably my choice of words, not theirs.
This month SMPD motor officers will “target” drivers talking or texting on their phones. The California law on handheld cell phones, one of the first in the nation, went into effect in 2008. A ban on texting followed in 2009. And following all that, you still can see people texting and looking down at their phones as they drive their two-ton vehicles through our city. And following that, you can still read about accidents ensuing from these exact behaviors.
Behavior. Use of that word suggests that said behavior can be modified. So let’s talk about one example that involved your humble columnist.
While waiting for a traffic light to change at the corner of Lincoln and Venice, I noticed that I could get over to the turn lane I coveted simply by driving over a double yellow line. Now this behavior is something you can witness or even participate in almost every time you are out driving. If driving fast and crazy is something true about New York City drivers – especially cab drivers – then blithely violating double yellows is certainly an LA driver trait. But it happens to be illegal. Sure enough, an LAPD cruiser was parked right where he could see me drive over the line.
I gently noted to the friendly officer that I must have personally witnessed hundreds, nee thousands of drivers over time, do the exact same thing. That did nothing; he kept writing the ticket, which I paid. It came to a little over $200 and some irritating monkey business when I attempted to pay the fine in person. But that’s another column.
Let me assure that a $200 fine was just what I needed to deepen my respect for double yellow lines. But it also set off a light bulb: Why aren’t the police out where they know they nail people driving over double yellows (Ocean Park going east where it meets Lincoln: Thank me later, SMPD) and raising thousands of dollars that might be used to cover various shortages in budgets? Two days ago I patiently waited to enter a turn lane without violating the double yellows, and counted five vehicles driving right over the lines. That’s $1000 in fines (or as I would dream it, school music programs) right there… in less than two minutes.
I won’t pretend to speak for the police, but I’m pretty sure that part of the thinking in not staking out a jackpot corner like the one I just described is that law enforcement isn’t intended to be that repressive or be preoccupied with the business of revenue gathering. Although there’s an argument in there somewhere regarding the energy any city, not just ours, puts into realizing revenue from parking tickets. You buy the scooters to bust people for parking violations, you then need to pay for the scooters, and the officers patrolling with them. And then if those involved work with vigilance, well, that’s a pretty good return on investment. But again, that’s vigilance regarding parking problems.
But as I learned to adjust my behavior after my ticket for violating a double-yellow line, so do I think the city is out to change our headset regarding phones and driving. Let’s be honest: We’re not using phones and texting illegally while we drive because we’re all waiting anxiously for word that a kidney donor has been found. We’re doing it for a combination of reasons, many of which plug directly into vanity and ego. How odd to find those elements in anything bedeviling Southern California, huh?
Mobile devices have, in this columnist’s view, created a new pathology of self-worth. The very idea that one must… MUST… respond quickly to messages sent by another seems undeniably predicated on a profound change in how we see ourselves and our integration to life. “They need me. I must respond now. Without me and my expression of my thoughts NOW, things will be wrong.” Not to put a pin in anybody balloon, but how did Gandhi accomplish so much without a mobile device? Although widely acknowledged as a pretty good lobbyist for her causes, Mother Teresa seems to have accomplished a lot without undue anxiety about texts and e-mails.
It won’t be enough if those who still believe they should drive and operate mobile gear in violation of the law simply view a ticket and fine from SMPD as an annoyance. What you should consider is that you have also been busted for making some rather fantastic assumptions about your need for connectivity in every single moment of your day. It’s not that you don’t matter; it’s that your need to communicate to remind yourself that you matter, will never have priority over the safety of others. The officer that ticketed me for crossing a double yellow repeated several times that a driver should imagine double yellows as though they were a brick wall. Santa Monica Police may soon be telling you that you need to imagine driving your car as though you were driving a car.