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State Hands-Free Cell Phone Law Reducing Number Of Drivers Using Device In Vehicle, According To Auto Club Surveys

Editors: A downloadable broadcast-quality interview video of Steven Bloch discussing the study is available.
(LOS ANGELES, Jan. 7, 2009) - The use of hand-held cell phones by California motorists dropped by two-thirds in the first three months after the law went into effect last July, according to an Automobile Club of Southern California survey of drivers using cell phones and electronic devises on Southland roads.
An observational survey by the Auto Club was conducted at three time periods - prior to the law taking effect in July, in August and October, 2008. During the first period prior to the law, the Auto Club found that 9.3 percent of drivers were using hand-held cell phones. By August, hand held cell phone use declined to 3.3 percent, and by October, three months after the law took effect, hand-held cell phone use was at 3.4 percent -- a drop of 64 percent over the pre-law level.
"The findings demonstrate that the law had much of its intended effect of reducing the number of drivers using their hand-held cell phones," said Steven A. Bloch, Ph.D., the Auto Club's senior traffic safety researcher. "Our one-month survey showed a sharp drop in cell phone use. What's impressive about our findings is that it shows that drivers are continuing to pay attention to the new law several months later."
The 64 percent reduction in cell phone use in the Auto Club's surveys is somewhat greater than that found in other U.S. studies. In New York and Washington D.C., cell phone use declined about 50 percent over the first few months under their new laws. "It will be important to determine whether California can maintain its high level of reduction over the long-term," Bloch said. New York, for example, did not, he added. "The Auto Club will be monitoring this issue."
The Auto Club surveys also examined driver use of other electronic devices, such as text messaging and hands-free cell phones. Before the law, nearly 5 percent of drivers were using some type of electronic device while driving. Unexpectedly, use of other electronic devices also dropped from pre-law levels to 3.7 percent in August and falling slightly lower to 3.2 percent in October.
"The hands-free cell phone law appears to have had the positive effect of slightly reducing the distraction of electronic devices other than cell phones," Bloch said. "Perhaps the message that all electronic devices can contribute to distraction is getting through."
By the end of 2008, the California Highway Patrol had given out more than 50,000 driving citations for violating the hands-free cell phone law.
The Auto Club researcher says he remains concerned by the number of distracted drivers it found in the observational surveys. In the latest survey, about 6.6 percent of drivers were using some sort of electronic device (3.4 percent using cell phones, 1.7 percent using hands-free cell phones, 1.5 percent using other electronic devices like iPods, text-ing, etc.). In addition, at least 3.4 percent of motorists were found to be driving with ear buds or Bluetooth devices in their cars (but were not talking). "Overall, approximately 10 percent of drivers are either driving distracted or preparing to drive distracted," said Bloch.
"We need to remind drivers that it's not just the hand-held cell-phones that can distract them, Bloch added. Distractions can come in many forms. "We encourage motorists to avoid all distractions while driving."
The Auto Club observational surveys were conducted at seven sites throughout Orange County. The surveys were conducted during morning, early afternoon and early evening commutes. More than 9,000 vehicles were sampled during the surveys. Survey sites included freeway entrances and exits as well as urban, suburban and small city roadways.
The Automobile Club of Southern California, the largest member of the AAA federation of motor clubs, has been serving Southern California since 1900. Today, the Auto Club's members benefit by roadside assistance, insurance products and services, travel agency, financial products, automotive pricing and buying programs, automotive testing and analysis, trip planning services and highway and transportation safety programs. Information about these products and services is available on the Auto Club's Web site at
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The Automobile Club of Southern California is a member club affiliated with the American Automobile Association (AAA) national federation and serves members in the following California counties: Inyo, Imperial, Kern, Los Angeles, Mono, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare, and Ventura.