No matter where you drive in the Golden State, you could be pulled over by the California Highway Patrol, which has jurisdiction not only on state highways but on all roadways open to the public.
And while the CHP is best known for nabbing speeders and drunk drivers and investigating highway crashes, the patrol also combats less-spectacular threats to public safety such as distracted driving, cell phone use and seat belt neglect.
"We're always enforcing these violations," said Napa-Sonoma CHP officer Jaret Paulson.
Driving behaviors that put you most at risk of being stopped by CHP
- Swerving, weaving and other signs of DUI
- Erratic speeds, failing to proceed at green lights
- Seat belt neglect or abuse, including illegally modifying seat belts
- Speeding ("That's been the cat and mouse game forever," Paulson said.)
- Cell phone use
Pull over, call back or go hands-free
Driving a white CHP cruiser, Paulson made a series of low-key stops on Napa city streets during a Monday morning "media ride-along" with Napa Patch earlier this month.
Motorists with hand-held cell phones were easy to spot: Starting in north Napa, Paulson first stopped a man in a Jeep, then a woman in an old Ford Escort wagon.
"He had the right hand to the right ear," said Paulson as he pulled up behind the Jeep driver on Trancas Street.
"We're going to talk to him, and he knows it."
Drew Wigington, 19, admitted he'd just taken a call, saying his ailing grandfather had phoned him to ask for some coffee. A few minutes later on Jefferson Street, Escort driver Kathy Mathe also said she'd received a call from a sick relative, for whom she is sole caregiver.
Paulson let both off with a warning: When the phone rings, pull over or wait and call back.
"It's a small town. It takes minutes to get across it," Paulson said.
Another alternative is to use a hands-free phone device, he added.
"We've got a hands-free law that says that's still fine unless you're under 18, then no electronic devices at all when you're driving," he said.
Texting is also a hazard, and Paulson says he sees it all the time when he's driving his civilian personal vehicle.
"When you get in the patrol car, everybody's just twitching and dropping things," he said, pointing out a passing motorist who "did the cell-phone throw" when she saw the CHP cruiser.
Officers use cell phones themselves, Paulson acknowledged: "There are exceptions for us, but I try my best not to use it unless there's a radio discrepancy or a down area."
Unsafe at any speed?
While phone use is one of the main causes for distracted driving, Paulson said motorists do other risky things behind the wheel.
After one accident he investigated, he said, the motorist told him she "was just driving."
But, Paulson continued, "she had chicken and rice all over her speedometer cluster and all over the dash."
Eating while driving is not illegal in itself, but "if somebody eats food and that's a distraction, that's a problem," Paulson said.
The applicable law is the one that makes it illegal to drive at an "unsafe speed for the conditions," Paulson explained:
"Say someone's reading a book and driving with their knees: That's going to be an unsafe speed for those conditions. I would argue that the safe speed to read a book and drive a car is zero, and judges have agreed," he said.
Seat belt enforcement
Paulson also made some stops for seat belt use, handing Alan Steen a ticket for failing to belt himself in before driving his Volkswagen Beetle across the Third Street bridge.
The amount of the seat belt fine wasn't printed on the ticket. Paulson said the CHP, which is funded by the state Department of Motor Vehicles, receives no revenue from any tickets it issues and has no quota for ticketing motorists.
Seat belt enforcement is a priority, he said, because the belts save lives.
"Most of our fatalities from last year were seat belt-related," he said.
The most common cause of death is ejection from the vehicle, but unbelted passengers can also become a serious hazard to others in a car during a collision.
"You are jeopardizing the safety of everybody else," he said.
In another seat belt stop, on Soscol Avenue, Paulson found everyone properly belted by the time he walked up to the car, but smelled alcohol inside the vehicle. After a passenger said he'd been drinking beer, Paulson asked the driver to step out for a roadside sobriety check. A few minutes later, he sent them on their way.