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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Driving While Distracted Can End in Trouble

Eating, playing with gadgets or doing things normally done in the bathroom or bedroom can cause accidents.

June 18, 2002|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In his seven years as a California Highway Patrol officer, Joseph Pace has seen drivers do some pretty dumb things behind the wheel. But perhaps the stupidest act was performed by a motorist driving 75 mph last summer on the Glenn Anderson Freeway in South Los Angeles.

It's not that the driver was going 10 mph over the speed limit. It's that he was doing it while watching a soccer match on a portable television set he held in one hand. The driver used his other hand to adjust the antenna--it is difficult, after all, to get good reception in a moving car. He used his knees to steer.

Pace cited him for driving at an unsafe speed for prevailing conditions. "The safe speed for driving with no hands is zero miles per hour," Pace said.

While shocking, this type of behavior is nearly an everyday occurrence on the freeways and streets of Southern California, according to CHP officers, truck drivers and other professional motorists.

Such extracurricular activities behind the wheel range from the mundane (talking on a cell phone), to the bizarre (driving naked) to the death-defying (putting on pantyhose). Many motorists have been caught in the driver's seat performing tasks that are normally done in a bathroom, such as brushing teeth or putting on makeup. And a few have been cited for performing deeds typically conducted in the bedroom.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that at least 25% of police-reported crashes involve some form of driver inattention. That number may be higher in Los Angeles, where commuters spend an average of an hour a day in traffic. That's the equivalent of nearly 11 days a year.

A recent survey of motorists in 10 of the nation's largest cities dubbed Los Angeles drivers "masters at multi-tasking behind the wheel." The survey, by a coalition of steel manufacturers, found that 68% of Los Angeles drivers routinely drink beverages and 59% eat while driving. An additional 15% of drivers apply makeup, shave or comb their hair while navigating L.A.'s treacherous roads, according to the survey.

"You name it and our officers have encountered it," said CHP Sgt. Tim Maley, a 25-year veteran.

There is no violation in the California Vehicle Code for driving while applying makeup. Instead, law enforcement officers typically cite distracted drivers under Section 22350: unsafe speed for prevailing conditions. It is the equivalent of a speeding ticket.

According to Southern California police agencies, CHP officers and truckers, such dangerous driver deeds fall into the following four categories:

Dressing, Grooming

Hoping to make use of the long hours spent on the road, many commuters perform their morning grooming rituals--shaving with electric razors, brushing teeth and applying makeup--while driving to work. But some take it a step too far.

CHP Officer Ken Duke said he recently cited a woman for putting on makeup--using the rearview mirror ... while reading a newspaper ... draped on the steering wheel--and driving on the Pasadena Freeway. "She wasn't very happy about it," he said.

About a year ago, veteran truck driver Margaret Peterson said she was cruising along the Long Beach Freeway about 55 mph when, from her elevated vantage point, she spotted a woman steering a car with her knees while using both hands to try to work her legs into a pair of pantyhose.

"I have trouble putting on pantyhose in my own home, so I don't know how she pulled it off," said a flabbergasted Peterson. "It was unreal."

Electronic Gadgets

Cell phone use has become common on L.A. streets, but reserve Los Angeles Police Officer Eric Rose said he stopped a speeding motorist who was practically conducting a business meeting from within his Mercedes-Benz on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley a few weeks ago.

The driver, who was holding an e-mail device in one hand, was reading the message on the screen while using the other hand to talk on a cell phone. The steering he left to his knees.

But that driver might be considered downright cautious compared with the man CHP Officer Brandon Shipwash ran across about a year ago on a downtown Los Angeles street.

While driving about 30 mph, the motorist was spotted playing a computerized football game on a Sony PlayStation that was built into the car's console.

"He was really getting into the game, too," Shipwash said.

Nudity, Intimacy

CHP Sgt. Maley recalls the many years he patrolled the desert freeways near Indio as dull and uneventful--for the most part. He remembers one hot summer night when he was responding to a call of a stranded motorist.

He stopped a car on a deserted road to ask the occupants if they had seen the ill-fated motorist. When Maley peered into the car, he was surprised to see a young couple wearing nothing but expressions of surprise.

Maley let them go with just a warning, saying: "This is California, so...."

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