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Dwindling officer numbers make Distracted Driver Law tough to enforce

I waited my turn at the three-way stop, then watched incredulously as a woman tearing along in her Lexus never touched the brake as she roared past the stop sign and headed south on Anasazi Drive. And the stop sign had a blinking red light.

She was holding her cellphone in one hand while animating what appeared to be a rant with her other hand.

Just as I was about to turn left off of Thomas W. Ryan Boulevard and onto Anasazi, a man driving what looked like a Nissan also failed to stop at the same blinking red sign while following the Lexus. He, too, held a phone in one hand and appeared to be figuratively ranting with his other hand.

“Did you see that?” my wife asked. “Incredible,” was all I could say. Then it occurred to me: “How could they drive while both hands were occupied?”

My wife commented with a twist of humor, “Maybe they’re married to each other and were just having a spat.”

While it was highly coincidental and indeed poignant that both drivers were holding phones, waving their opposite hands and never stopping, they easily could have represented an accident waiting to happen. And maybe they did crash somewhere down the road.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing more and more drivers talking on phones, and it’s not the hands-off, Bluetooth variety they’re using. It’s the phones you have to hold in one hand, the kind that precipitated the Distracted Driver Law, which became effective two years ago and says you can be fined, and if you continue violating the law, you can lose your license for six months.

A few days later, two friends witnessed a horrific accident at the corner of Anasazi and Lake Mead Boulevard. A woman moving at a good speed ran a red light and broadsided another vehicle driven by a woman with children in the car. Luckily, no one was killed.

Neither of my friends noticed whether the violator was talking on a phone. Still, the point is this: There are enough reasons why road accidents happen, and the law was enacted by the Legislature to eliminate one of them.

But a conversation with Metropolitan Police Department Public Information Officer Bill Cassell produced no data regarding offenders of the law.

“In the past, we tried to document those kinds of situations,” Cassell said, adding that the bottom line is, “we have no database.”

In essence, there is no way to measure the effectiveness of the law.

You can say, “OK, maybe the numbers have gone up,” that more people are disregarding a law that makes texting and holding a cellphone illegal while driving. And maybe it all goes back to what Cassell called “a criminal psychology that asks, can they get away with it, whether they’re running a red light or talking on the phone?”

Some of the answers may lie in peripheral data that are available. According to Cassell, during a period in 2011, the number of road fatalities in Las Vegas was 66. That jumped significantly to 99 for a corresponding period in 2012 and to 94 in 2013 for the same time frame.

Cassell provided numbers for DUI arrests, a major indicator of road fatalities. There were 7,500 in 2011, down to 6,750 in 2012 and 5,100 in 2013.

Don’t conclude from those figures that there’s a lesser number of drunks getting behind the wheel. But there is a lesser number of police officers giving citations and making arrests.

“The problem is that we have diminishing resources. Taking drunken drivers off the road is always a priority,” Cassell said. “But we don’t have the manpower that we need.

“We are down 25 officers in traffic,” he added. When attempting to correlate that number into everyday traffic control, Cassell said it means a reduction of two to three officers a day.

Based on both available and nonexistent data, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to conclude that the cellphone and texting offenders are having a field day.

Herb Jaffe was an op-ed columnist and investigative reporter for most of his 39 years at the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. His most recent novel, “Double Play,” is now available. Contact him at hjaffe@cox.net.

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