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Auto Club Study: Texting While Driving on the Rise

After an initial drop, texting while driving appears to be on the rise 15 months after California’s texting ban was implemented, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California’s latest observational roadside survey of drivers.  The Auto Club analysis is the first examination of the long-term effects of a U.S. texting law.
Before the texting law went into effect in January 2009, three Auto Club surveys conducted in mid- to late 2008 showed consistently that about 1.4% of motorists were texting at any point in time. Two surveys conducted shortly after the texting ban (May and July 2009) showed that texting (or manipulating electronic devices) had dropped about 70%, to about 0.5%. The Club’s latest survey, conducted in late March and early April 2010, shows that texting has more than doubled from the earlier studies – to 1.1%.
“These results are disappointing,” said Steven Bloch, Ph.D., the Auto Club’s senior researcher.  Many studies clearly demonstrate the risks related to texting while driving, he said. One study shows texting and driving raises the probability of a crash eight-fold, while another shows it increases a truck driver’s chance of being in a crash by a factor of 24. Researchers call texting a “perfect storm,” because drivers take their hands off the steering wheel and their eyes and minds are off the road.
“The fact that we’re seeing a statistically significant rise in texting despite the state ban indicates that additional efforts are needed to help deal with the problem,” said Bloch. “It’s just over a year after California’s texting ban was implemented, and texting is rising toward the level it was before the law.”
One approach is for law enforcement to issue more citations. However, it’s difficult for law enforcement agencies to cite texting motorists.  Drivers typically hold devices in their lap, making it hard for law enforcement to see what motorists are doing. Texting citations are often given out by motorcycle officers, who have a better view of driver actions.
Because of this challenge, the California Highway Patrol reports issuing an average of only about 150 citations per month since the texting ban went into effect. By comparison, over the past year, the CHP issued about 11,600 hand-held cell phone citations each month.
“Agencies may need to rethink how they cite drivers for texting,” said Bloch.  “A targeted New Jersey enforcement program uses officers standing on street corners, to locate, pull over and cite cell phoning and texting drivers. That method of enforcement may be more effective.”
A second way to deter drivers from texting is by increasing penalties. The Auto Club is currently supporting SB 1475 (Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto) that increases the texting fine to $100 (plus penalty assessments), up from $20 for a first offense and $50 for subsequent offenses. The bill also imposes a point on a motorist’s driving record.
“Moving violations typically require the DMV to impose a point, and there is little reason that this dangerous traffic violation should be treated differently than others,” said Bloch. “Studies have established that imposing points on driving records is a very effective deterrent to hazardous driving.”
Courts and juries are also recognizing the danger of texting and driving, and are increasing punishments. In one case, Martin Kuehl, 42, of Costa Mesa, this month was sentenced to four years in prison for killing a pedestrian while texting and driving.  The prosecutor used cell phone records and witness accounts to show that Kuehl was texting behind the wheel during the half-hour leading up to the fatal crash.   
The Auto Club survey of drivers also examined their level of hand-held and hands-free cell phone use. These results show little change in use levels since the last surveys were conducted in 2009. In the latest survey, hand-held cell phone use was 3.6%, about 60 percent lower than before the state cell phone law went into effect in July 2008.  In the four post-law surveys, hand-held cell phone use ranged from 3.1 to 3.9 percent.
The Auto Club and AAA are using educational approaches to help drivers recognize the risks of being distracted while driving.  The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and AAA called on all drivers to pledge their participation in Heads Up Driving Week last October.  Drivers were asked to rethink their driving behavior by taking the first step toward becoming distraction-free and trying it for a week, and then doing it for life.
On Friday, April 30, The Oprah Winfrey Show will present a special live episode devoted to distracted driving while simultaneously coordinating five rallies nationwide, including in Los Angeles.  The rallies bring together victims’ families, elected officials and advocacy groups.
The Auto Club has also incorporated distracted driving safety information into driver education programs, including the Auto Club Driving School for teens at its 20 locations.  (It is illegal for drivers under age 18 to use any cell phone or other mobile communications devices while driving.)
Cell phone use continues to grow, posing an additional challenge for traffic safety efforts.  Text messaging is increasing and multi-media messaging   (messages that contain an image or video) more than doubled from 2008 to 2009.  According to the wireless industry trade association, CTIA, the number of text messages reached 5 billion per day at the end of last year.
The Auto Club in-vehicle cell phone and texting surveys were each conducted using systematic random samples of about 4,000 vehicles that were passing by seven roadside sites in Orange County.  Surveys were conducted during six time periods: June 2008, prior to the cell phone law first taking effect; July, August and October 2008; May and July 2009; and March-April 2010.  Observational surveys were conducted in morning, early afternoon, evening commutes and on freeway entrances and exits, and urban, suburban and small city roadways.
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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.