Before California’s texting ban went into effect in January 2009, about 1.4 percent of drivers on average were observed texting or manipulating an electronic device (such as a smart phone) at any point in time behind the wheel. According to the Auto Club’s latest survey using the same methodology at seven locations in Southern California, that proportion is now nearly three times as high – 4.1 percent at any time.
Some of the biggest changes observed in the Auto Club study have come in 2010 and 2011. The most recent survey found that 1.9 percent of drivers were texting and driving at any time, up about 20 percent from a year earlier. Even more significant was the change in the proportion of drivers seen holding and manipulating electronic devices, but not necessarily texting. That proportion doubled in the past year – to 2.3 percent. Increases in texting and the use of electronic devices while driving in California mirror the larger, global trend in these activities throughout daily life.
Auto Club studies have also examined the levels of hand-held cell phone use on the road. These findings demonstrate that California’s hand-held cell phone ban was far more effective than that for texting. Results showed that since June 2008, the month before the hand-held ban went into effect, driver use of the devices has dropped sharply – by 66 percent – from 9.3 percent to 3.2 percent. And that drop is remaining consistent through the second anniversary of the law, July 1, 2011.
The latest Auto Club observational survey results come on the heels of the National Transportation Safety Board’s discussion last week of a fatal crash between a tour boat and a barge that killed two foreign students and dumped 35 others into a shipping channel in Philadelphia. According to news reports, the pilot of the tug pushing the barge was talking on his cell phone and using a laptop.
The safety board said in news reports that the nation risks a surge in these types of distracted driving crashes unless the activity comes to be viewed as unacceptable as drinking and driving.
The Auto Club’s results, which have been showing a sharp upward trend in texting and manipulating devices through 2010 and 2011, indicate that California needs to pay more attention to combating theses important safety problems. “We need greater public awareness of the dangers of texting and using electronic devices behind the wheel,” said the Auto Club’s Government Affairs Manager Steve Finnegan. “The state also needs stronger penalties and targeted enforcement to reduce texting while driving – which is really the perfect storm of distraction that takes drivers’ eyes, hands, and brains off the task of driving.” And he added that “although the growth of in-car texting and related electronic device use mirrors the explosive growth of wireless use overall in society, it’s very troubling that this growth appears to have overcome the early effectiveness of the current law.”
The rise in texting while driving reflects the spike in mobile communications device use overall. According to the wireless industry trade association, CTIA, text messaging is enormously popular, with more than 2 trillion text messages sent and received on carriers’ networks in the U.S. during the 12-month period ending last December - or about 6 billion a day, according to CTIA. (This is up from 1.8 trillion text messages or 4.9 billion a day the previous year, according to CTIA statistics.)
Just-published research from the Nielsen Co. shows that data viewed on smartphones is up an average of 89 percent in the U.S. over a 12-month period that ended in March. The rise in data consumption was attributed to the use of more apps on the Apple and Google mobile operating systems. On average, an American’s smartphone had 22 apps, according to CTIA.
California law bans the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. According to the California Highway Patrol, enforcement of that ban includes citing drivers for using hand-held phones to access the Internet. The Golden State is one of 34 states, plus Washington D.C., that have banned texting while driving, including the sending, receiving and reading of text-based communication and e-mails. California law does not, however, explicitly ban the use of electronic equipment that is not a “communication device,” but that can access the Internet, such as the iPod Touch.
“Current penalties for texting while driving in the Golden State haven’t deterred the behavior,” said Finnegan. A motorist caught texting while driving is assessed a $20 base fine for a first offense and $50 for a second offense. Adding related penalties, the cost of a citation increases to between $114 and $143 for a first offense and to about $279 for a second offense. Unlike other moving violations, however, no “point” is placed on a motorist’s driving record. “This is unfortunate,” said Finnegan “since research shows that imposing points increases driver compliance with traffic safety laws.”
Senate Bill 28, now under consideration, would impose greater fines and levy a point, in some situations, on a driver’s DMV record for a second or subsequent violation. Unfortunately the bill’s provision on points was weakened from a version first introduced last year. Although not as effective as points, the bill increases the base fine to $50 for a first offense and $100 for the second. Adding current penalties to these proposed new base fines bring the total cost of citations to between $279 and $479.
The CHP has issued about 15,000 cell phone and texting citations per month so far in 2011—up considerably from prior years. Since California’s cell phone and texting laws went into effect, 410,000 citations have been issued by the agency.
“Giving out that many citations helps explain why we’ve seen a continuing decline in hand-held cell phone use in California,” explained Steven Bloch, Ph.D., the Auto Club’s senior traffic safety researcher. “The problem is that issuing citations for texting is far more difficult. Drivers typically hold texting and other electronic devices down low, making them hard for law enforcement officers to see. The result is that police agencies give out relatively few texting citations.”
Because of this challenge, the CHP has created and publicized “high enforcement periods,” in collaboration with local police agencies to target distracted drivers.
The Auto Club in-vehicle cell phone and texting surveys were each conducted using consistent methods of systematic random samples of about 4,000 vehicles that were passing by seven roadside sites in Orange County. Surveys were conducted during: June 2008, prior to the cell phone law first taking effect; July, August and October 2008; May and July 2009; March-April and July 2010 and June 2011. Observational surveys were conducted in morning, early afternoon, evening commutes on freeway entrances and exits, and urban, suburban and small city roadways.