Most of us have done it or have seen others do it. But in Honolulu, it’s illegal to use a cell phone or other mobile electronic device while driving.

In the two years since Honolulu’s hands-free law went into effect, police have handed out 16,837 citations. The rate of ticketing is trending to about 10,000 a year, an average of about 27 tickets a day.

The fine and fees for first-time offenders are $97 — up from $67 per violation when the law first took effect. On July 1, the fee will rise even higher to $147.

The hands-free law was passed in an attempt to cut down on people using cell phones while driving. But because of a computer issue, the Honolulu Police Department can’t track whether accidents are caused by drivers using cell phones.

All of Hawaii’s county police agencies use the same accident report, designed by the State Department of Transportation.

“It does allow an officer to check a box for ‘Cellular Phone,’ another box for ‘Other Electronic Communication Device’ and another box for ‘Other Electronic Device,’” HPD spokeswoman Caroline Sluyter told Civil Beat. “However, these reports are entered into the current HPD Records Management System, which is not designed to capture these statistics.”

Sluyter adds that HPD is trying to get a new, up-to-date system.

“Although we don’t track it (distracted driving accidents related to cell phone use), we feel it’s important that it does keep people from getting into accidents,” she said.

State DOT spokesperson Dan Meisenzahl says the department is in the process of compiling the statistics of accidents related to cell phone use. But it could be months before they’re ready.

“We have just one person doing this work and he’s not just sorting through one category – it’s everything,” he said.

Meisenzahl says prior to the hands-free law, the Motor Vehicle Collision Report didn’t have a category specific to accidents caused by using a cell phone. Instead, the closest category that came to that was “Distracted by Occupant.”

“That could include anything from putting on lipstick to even possibly using your cell phone,” he said.

The Skinny on the Law

The National Safety Council estimates that so far this year in the U.S., there have been a little more than 518,000 crashes, or roughly 100,000 per month, involving drivers using cell phones and texting.

In Honolulu, you’ll get cited if you’re caught holding any mobile electronic device while driving. This includes texting, regardless of whether you’re holding the device or not. And even though it isn’t written into the law, according to the HPD, if both hands aren’t on the wheel while driving, “it may be a violation,” Sluyter said.

The only exemption is if you need to call 9-1-1.

Jason Kim was one of the 16,837 people cited for disobeying the Hands Free Law in the nearly two years it has been in effect.

The 34-year-old Honolulu entrepreneur told the officer he wasn’t on the phone, but was sternly reminded that by law, he was required to have two hands on the steering wheel at all times.

“I wasn’t aware that you have to keep two hands on the steering wheel,” he said. “I don’t think they (HPD) educate the public well enough on those details. There should be more reminders to the public.”

Kim ultimately was ordered to pay the $97 fine. But he said he feels the law, although fair for safety reasons, doesn’t seem clear enough.

He says he still sees lots of people on their phones while driving.

“I only learned my lesson the hard way by paying $97 and writing a letter,” he said.

Here’s a year-by-year breakdown of hands-free citations handed out in Honolulu since the law went into effect. Civil Beat also compiled statistics of other citations handed out while driving, including not using a seatbelt and speeding.

Hands-Free Citations

Year Number of Citations Given
2009 2,979^
2010 10,101
2011 3,757**

( ^Law went into effect mid-year )
( **As of end of April)

Speeding Tickets

Year Number of Citations Given
2005 31,789
2006 43,733
2007 43,065
2008 51,037
2009 57,503
2010 54,731
2011 20,302*

(*Year to date)

Seatbelt Violations

Year Number of Citations Given
2005 10,680
2006 7,394
2007 6,249
2008 6,453
2009 7,019
2010 6,419
2011 2,023*

(*Year to date)

The HPD says it doesn’t receive money generated by hands-free citations. Instead, fines go into the state’s general fund. The State Judiciary tells Civil Beat that the entire fine and $20 from the administrative fee goes into the state’s general fund.

11-year-olds Responsible For Law

Honolulu has teenagers Caelyn Brown and Paige Jimenez to thank for the law. Both were ambitious 11-year-olds at the time. The kids, helped buy Caelyn’s mother, Catherine, encouraged then-council member Charles Djou to introduce a bill.

“We were driving on the H-1 and a woman cut me off,” Brown said. “Caelyn yells from the backseat, “Why don’t they have that law?”

Djou said he also saw the need for a Hands-Free Law because of an incident involving a city bus driver, who was caught on video, playing a hand-held game while driving.

The first attempt to craft this type of legislation failed. It included outlawing only texting and playing video games while driving. HPD claimed it would be too hard to enforce.

“The Honolulu ordinance defines ‘use’ as holding the device while operating a motor vehicle,” Sluyter told Civil Beat. “The officer just has to observe the operator holding the device while operating a motor vehicle and that would be a violation, not specify that the operator was texting, calling or talking to anyone.”

Sluyter adds, “The enforcement of the mobile electronic device law would be difficult if ‘use’ of the device was restricted to texting or calling, as suggested by the first ordinance, but that is not the case here.”

Despite some saying the law isn’t working, HPD claims it certainly is.

“Honolulu’s ordinance is a valid enforceable law,” Sluyter said. “Hawaii has no state law, however, all of the other counties have adopted this ordinance based on Honolulu’s ordinance.”

The National Safety Council, an advocacy group striving to keep drivers safe, said it isn’t surprised HPD doesn’t keep these kinds of statistics.

In some states, it’s a paperwork problem. But in HPD’s case, it’s a computer issue.

Deb Trombley is a part of the NSC’s transportation initiatives division. She tells Civil Beat that in certain circumstances, the reporting of accidents related to mobile device distractions, doesn’t necessarily fall in the hands of authorities.

“Drivers may not admit to cell phone use or in a single vehicle fatal crash, there may be no survivors or witnesses to report driver cell phone use or while it is possible to subpoena cell phone records, this can be seen as a last-resort measure and may be reserved for crashes involving serious injury, fatality or a lawsuit,” Trombley said.

Ultimately, local crash report data informs national reports, such as this one by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

This report provides the official national numbers on distracted driving fatalities.

“Yet, even the NHTSA acknowledges that due to limitations in capturing cell phone or other driver distraction data in crash reports, the fatality numbers in this report are certainly underreported,” Trombley said.

Nationally, there are only nine states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Utah and Washington) and the District of Columbia that have banned talking on hand-held phones while driving.

But many more states have banned text messaging while behind the wheel. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a non-profit organization dedicated to keeping the nation’s road safe, reports (http://www.iihs.org/laws/cellphonelaws.aspx) that text messaging while driving is banned in 32 states and the District of Columbia.