Although California banned texting while driving in 2008, the state is ramping up enforcement efforts for its first Distracted Driving Awareness Month, which runs through April. Police officers have instructions to show “zero tolerance” toward people who text, use cell phones or engage in any other form of distracted driving while operating a motor vehicle.

Throughout the month, more than 225 local police agencies in the state and the 103 California Highway Patrol commands will be conducting zero-tolerance enforcement operations. Motorists who break the California distracted driving law will be fined $159 for the first offense and a minimum of $279 for subsequent tickets.

Nationwide, distracted driving killed 5,474 people and injured 448,000 on U.S. roadways in 2009, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Statistics show that drivers who use handheld devices are four times more likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. Younger, inexperienced drivers under 20 years old have the highest proportion of distraction-related fatal crashes.

American Society of Safety Engineers’ (ASSE) President-Elect Terrie S. Norris, applauded the California crack down, noting that transportation crashes are the top cause of on-the-job deaths in the U.S, costing $170 billion a year.”

“Who do you think pays for that? First, the people that lose loved ones will always have a hole in their hearts. But we all pay. For instance, motor vehicle crashes cost employers 60 billion dollars every year in medical care, legal expenses, property damages, lost productivity and much more.”

Norris said that increased roadway construction and the summer travel in the coming months will make distracted driving even more of a hazard.

“We must all do our part to prevent roadway crashes,” she said. “Focusing on the road, not being distracted, not driving while drowsy and wearing seatbelts are just some of the things motorists can do. Many companies with the help of their occupational safety and health professionals have developed and implemented successful driver safety programs that not only protect their employees, but also help their bottom line.”