On One-Year Anniversary Of Law, Study Shows Continued Reduction In Cell Phone Use While Driving

(LOS ANGELES, July 1, 2009)Use of hand-held cell phones by drivers declined sharply from pre-law levels nearly a year after the state law went into effect last July, according to Automobile Club of Southern California observational roadside surveys of drivers on Orange County roads.

Prior to the law’s implementation, the Auto Club found that 9.3% of drivers were using hand-held cell phones. Shortly after the law took effect, July 1, 2008, use declined to 3.3% – a drop of 65% in one month, according to the Auto Club survey. Use of hand-held cell phones has crept up slightly in follow-up surveys, rising to 3.4% three months later, and increasing to 3.9% in the Auto Club’s 10-month follow-up survey. Importantly, however, hand-held cell phone use remains 58% below where it was before the state implemented its cell phone law.

Two other US localities have hands-free cell phone laws that have been systematically evaluated. Those locations experienced very different results from their laws. In New York State, where a hands-free cell phones law took effect in 2001, almost no effect of the law was found a year later. In contrast, Washington, D.C., experienced a reduction of more than one-third in the use of hand-held cell phones about one year later.

“It’s encouraging that California’s experience with its cell phone law seems far closer to that of Washington, D.C. up to this point,” according to Steven Bloch, Ph.D., the Auto Club’s senior traffic safety researcher. “Hand-held cell phone use appears to have crept up slowly over the months, but contrary to a general perception of much higher usage, it’s still far lower than it was before the law took effect a year ago and the new onboard hands-free systems haven’t yet had a major impact.”

The Auto Club surveys have been conducted using systematic random samples of about 13,500 vehicles passing by seven roadside sites in Orange County. Surveys were conducted during four time periods – prior to the law taking effect last July, in August and October 2008 and May 2009. Observational surveys have been conducted at varying times of the day (morning, early afternoon, evening commutes) and on varying types of roadways (freeway entrances and exits, and urban, suburban and small city roadways).

“An interesting secondary effect of the California law is that the use of hands-free devices has also declined over the past year – something we didn’t anticipate,” said Bloch. “Prior to July 2008, our survey showed about 3.7 percent of drivers using hands-free devices and we’ve seen the number drop steadily each time we conducted the survey. In May 2009 use of hands-free devices had declined to just one percent of drivers.”

A year after the law went into effect, the California Highway Patrol had issued approximately 112,000 driving citations for violating the hands-free cell phone law. That number represents about 6% of all CHP citations for moving violations, a percentage greater than that documented (about 4%) for New York’s unsuccessful law, but less than that (7%-8%) shown for Washington D.C.’s far more effective legislation.

“We hope California drivers are getting the message that driving on a cell phone – whether hand-held or hands-free – is dangerous,” said Bloch. Many studies have shown the same result – which it’s the mental, not physical, distraction that we need be most concerned with in keeping our roads safe.”

California’s law still allows drivers of all ages to use a cell phone or other mobile device in case of emergency.

Cell-phone safety tips from the Auto Club include:
  • Plan your route in advance to reduce the likelihood of needing to call for directions.
  • Wait until you reach your destination to accept or make cell phone calls.
  • Ask your passenger to take your cell phone calls while you remain focused on the road.
  • If you must take a cell phone call, pull into a parking lot and shut off your engine.
  • Suspend all cell phone conversations during hazardous traffic and weather conditions.