Data from a 2022 study observing incidents of distracted drivers revealed that youth, residents of low-income neighborhoods and communities of color in Long Beach were among those more at risk of accidents from distracted driving.

The city’s health department aims to use that data and a new  $215,000 grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety to reduce such accidents through the GreenlightLB program, which will use outreach, education and other “behavioral changing” strategies to help curb distracted driving.

In recent years, the city has seen a spike in fatal traffic collisions, with 60% of deaths in 2020 being pedestrians.

“These distracted drivers are causing harm to people other than themselves,” said Richard Nuñez, program manager of GreenlightLB. “We want to remind them that they have the ability to make a difference by just simply putting down their phone.”

The 2022 study found that handheld devices, like cell phones, contribute to distracted driving the most in Long Beach, accounting for about 42% of all driver distractions, said Nuñez. This follows a statewide and nationwide trend.

That’s why officials are prioritizing outreach among youth and young adults, who are more at risk as they are newer drivers, said Nuñez. Data shows that distracted driving is the leading cause of major injury crashes involving teens, he added.

The program is also focusing on certain neighborhood communities throughout the city that are more at risk and may be less aware of distracted driving behaviors and laws. Specifically, the city has partnered with the Cambodian community, said Nuñez.

Data from annual surveys in previous years shows that participants from the Cambodian community were:

  • less likely to be aware of some distracted driving laws
  • more likely to drive while using a handheld device
  • less likely to be comfortable using handsfree systems like Siri or car-mounted devices, said Nuñez.

Nuñez also said GreenlightLB has a Spanish-speaking health educator, but they don’t yet have the capacity to reach the entire Latino community.

“We do see (that drivers in) intersections in low-income communities and people of color were more likely to be observed using a handheld device than others,” said Nuñez.

It’s not that communities of color are more likely to drive distracted, but rather that they experience a disproportionate number of severe traffic accidents, which is also a nationwide issue, according to Jennifer Rice Epstein, a spokesperson from the Health Department.

This is due to factors like underinvestment in safe transportation infrastructure and street design, according to Safe Street Long Beach’s Vision Zero, an initiative to reduce traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2026.

Nuñez said 73% of Long Beach’s high-injury intersections and 83% of “high injuries” are in disadvantaged communities, according to data from Vision Zero.

GreenlightLB conducts an annual observational assessment of distracted driving around the city called RoadwatchLB. The assessment gathers data on intersections with higher rates of collisions and injuries based on Safe Streets Long Beach Vision Zero’s high injury corridor and intersection map.

Observers saw about 2,600 driver distractions over three two-hour sessions on at least five intersections in the spring and fall, which is an 8% decrease from 2021, according to Nuñez.

Observers tallied the largest number of distracted drivers at the intersections of Seventh Street and Ximeno Avenue as well as Willow Street and Santa Fe Avenue. But Nuñez said cell phones weren’t the only distractions to blame; for many Long Beach commuters, eating while driving is a common disruption.

“So, we increased education on this topic and let them know that not only can police issue a ticket for eating and driving, but it puts everyone on the road at risk and can even cause fatal accidents,” said Nuñez.

Through GreenlightLB and funding from the state, the city has offered free courses and workshops in multiple languages. The city has also partnered with community organizations and leaders to teach them how to talk to residents about distracted driving and traffic safety.

This is the department’s fourth year of receiving grants from the state. Since it started, the program has seen some progress. In addition to seeing fewer distracted drivers, a 2022 survey revealed a 15% decrease in adult respondents who reported making phone calls while driving from the previous year, said Nuñez.

To get involved with outreach or for more information, contact [email protected] or click here.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct a quote from Richard Nuñez, program manager of GreenlightLB and to clarify that teenagers and drivers of marginalized and low income communities are more at-risk of accidents caused by distracted driving. 

Maison Tran is a fellow at the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected].