Area law enforcement took part in a distracted driving patrol for an awareness campaign Monday morning.
More than 50 drivers were pulled over during the Distracted Driving Awareness Campaign, which was aimed to deter motorists from using their cell phones while driving. In 29 of those stops, the driver was using a cell phone while driving, according to a press release from the La Grande Police Department.
On Monday morning, law enforcement from LGPD, Union County Sheriff’s Office and Oregon State Police were situated in the “four corners” of La Grande — mainly in the Adams Avenue area and Island Avenue, where traffic is heaviest from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m.
LGPD Sgt. Kris Rasmussen was one of the 11 officers on duty for the campaign. The Observer participated in a ride-along during the duration of the event to get a better look at how many drivers are using their phones.
Rasmussen, who has been an officer for 21 years for the LGPD, said resources currently don’t allow for the officers to focus strictly on traffic stops. This was the first time in a while that she’s been able to do this many traffic stops, she said.
Rasmussen said the main emphasis of the campaign was not to ticket drivers for their phone use but to educate them.
“We want the least amount of enforcement to change behavior,” she said.
Law enforcement hopes that a warning about the cell phone use will be enough to deter drivers from doing it again. However, drivers who have been issued citations in the past are more likely to be issued a citation rather than a warning because they haven’t learned to heed the message.
Such was the case on Monday morning. Rasmussen pulled more than five drivers over for using their cell phones, but she ticketed only one of them. That driver had been issued a ticket for cell phone use previously. Otherwise, the drivers got warnings and were very respectful toward Rasmussen as she explained the campaign.
“Dispatchers will tell (officers) of previous entries,” Rasmussen said, referring to the warnings the drivers have on their record. “If a warning is good enough, then that’s what we issue.”
One of the challenges involved in spotting a driver is the fact that the officers must physically see the cell phone being used — it can’t just be a driver is looking down at their lap. That makes things more difficult for officers.
“I see way more drivers using their cell phones when I’m off duty than when I’m on duty,” Rasmussen said.
The officers were in both marked and unmarked police vehicles. Rasmussen was in one of the unmarked
vehicles on Monday morning, making her harder to spot by drivers.
La Grande Police Lt. Gary Bell was also out with the other officers warning drivers on Monday.
“We know cell phone use is a contributing factor to crashes in La Grande, as well as around the state,” Bell told The Observer Tuesday. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the resources to be as proactive about it as we’d like.”
With that in mind, Bell was happy to take the time to focus on that area Monday.
“(Monday) was an opportunity to set aside a block of time and work collectively to provide information to drivers,” he said.
Along with a warning or a citation, the drivers received a pamphlet printed by the Oregon Department of Transportation that explained the risks of texting and driving.
Seven citations were issued total and the rest were warnings, Bell said.
“When we’re doing a campaign like this, the idea is to educate and make people more aware,” Bell said. “Our interest is not to go out and generate income and issue citations — that really explains why there are so many warnings given. That might not always be the case, though.”
Rasmussen said she usually sees younger drivers using their cell phones.
That wasn’t the case on Monday, though. Of the 52 drivers who were pulled over on Monday, only one of the drivers was a juvenile.
Law enforcement will be out again doing the same campaign later this week.