Law on lookout for distracted drivers

Nineteen-year-old Eric Okerblom was riding his bicycle east of Santa Maria when he was struck and killed by a distracted driver July 25, 2009.

He was one of 5,474 people nationwide killed by distracted drivers that year.

In an effort to reduce that statistic, law enforcement agencies throughout the state have designated April as Distracted Driving Awareness Month. Texting and talking on hand-held cellphones are the most common causes of distracted driving, said Adam Cuevas, chief of the CHP’s coastal division in San Luis Obispo.

“Texting is one of the most dangerous things you can do behind the wheel,” he said.

Various law enforcement agencies are promising zero-tolerance days, including today, for drivers who text and talk on their cellphones without a hands-free device.

Okerblom’s case is typical of distracted-driving tragedies. It occurred in daylight on Telephone Road, a straight, rural road with good visibility.

“He was struck from behind by a teenage driver traveling 60 mph,” said Eilene Okerblom, Eric’s mother. “The driver did not brake or swerve to miss Eric. He was hurled 140 feet to a violent and brutal death.”

The driver denied being distracted, but court-ordered phone records showed incoming and outgoing texts at the time of the accident. Texting drivers often take their eyes off the road for as much as five seconds, the equivalent of driving the length of a football field blindfolded, Eilene Okerblom said.

Since the accident, she has been speaking out against distracted driving. She is also lobbying to have the fines for cellphone use and texting while driving increased.

The penalty for a first offense is about $160, with a second ticket costing $279. That is not enough money to be a real deterrent, Okerblom said.