With 790,000 California Highway Patrol citations issued, California’s five-year-old laws to curb driver use of handheld cell phones and texting while driving appear to have reduced some, but not nearly enough, illegal behavior, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California’s annual roadside observational surveys. The surveys, conducted since 2008 before the bans took effect, gauge use of both handheld cell phones and texting while driving. More than seven percent of drivers are still talking on handheld cell phones or texting while driving at any point in time. These activities have been proven to create mental distractions that can slow reaction time and create dangerous and often fatal conditions for drivers, passengers and others.
Handheld Cell Phone Use
The Auto Club’s first June 2008 roadside observational survey, the month before the state handheld cell phone law went into effect, found that 9.3 percent of drivers at any time were using cell phones. That rate plummeted to 3.3 percent immediately after the ban took effect and has varied relatively little over the past five years, ranging between 3.1 and 4 percent. The current rate of 4 percent is 57 percent below that prior to the ban.
Studies show that cell phone use while driving (handheld or hands-free) is dangerous, quadrupling a driver’s risk of being in a traffic crash, and is as dangerous as driving with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 (the legal limit). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that 390,331 people were killed or injured in 2011 in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver.
Texting While Driving
Unlike the decline in handheld cell phone use, rates of texting while driving remain much higher than when the texting ban first took effect in January 2009. Prior to California’s texting ban, three Auto Club roadside surveys showed about 1.5 percent of drivers’ texting at any time. Right after the texting ban took effect, the level of texting dropped to as little as 0.3 percent. But texting while driving rates soon began to climb and now reach 4 percent – 126 percent higher than before the ban.
Two reasons are commonly cited for the increase in texting while driving – the tremendous growth in texting overall during the last five years and the difficulty in enforcing the ban. Of the 790,000 CHP citations issued for handheld cell phone use and texting while driving since 2008, only 30,000 have been for texting. “Officers experience difficulty in citing texting since motorists can conceal their behavior inside the vehicle much more easily than when using a handheld cell phone. This impacts how effective the law can be as a deterrent,” said the Auto Club’s Traffic Safety Researcher Steven A. Bloch, Ph.D.
“Texting while driving is inherently dangerous because it takes one’s eyes off the road, hands off the wheel, and – crucially – mind off the task of driving,” Bloch added.
Growing Dangers of Mental Distraction
While state laws have focused on the manual activities of handheld cell phones and texting, there is growing evidence of the dangers posed by the mental distraction of various activities while driving, including hands-free cell phone use and voice-activated texting “Using increasingly common hands-free technology for talking or reading and ‘writing’ texts and emails while driving is a growing crash risk even when keeping eyes on the road and hands on the wheel,” said Bloch.
In June, a groundbreaking AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study, “Measuring Cognitive Distraction in the Automobile,” found that talking on a cell phone, handheld and hands-free, resulted in a significant level of distraction and driving risk. The study also found that other hands-free features, including voice-to-text, increased the distraction level and posed an even greater crash risk. The study was conducted by Dr. David Strayer, a cognitive distraction expert at the University of Utah.
The AAA Foundation study made clear that drivers who use handheld or hands-free devices suffer from “inattention blindness,” failing to see what is directly in front of them. Distracted drivers also scan the road less, potentially resulting in not seeing stop signs and pedestrians, the study found.
Voice Texting Ban and Stricter Penalties Needed
To address the growing dangers of mental distractions behind the wheel, a bill was introduced this year to ban “voice texting.” AB 313, by Assembly Member Jim Frazier, would make voice-activated texting illegal by repealing the changes made by AB 1536 (2012) that allowed such texting.
“Texting and driving – whether performed using hands-free technology or hand-held devices – presents a traffic safety danger and should not be permitted,” said the Auto Club’s Government Affairs Manager Steve Finnegan.
“A major problem with voice-texting is that it creates the illusion of driver safety since some physical and visual distractions of manipulating an electronic device are removed. But good research – which should form the basis for any legislation affecting the public safety – indicates that voice-activated texting is dangerous,” added Finnegan.
Unfortunately, AB 313 was deferred this year, but it will be reconsidered by the Legislature in 2014. Given the results of the AAA Foundation study, the Auto Club will be urging the Legislature to examine the issue closely in the coming months, and ban the risky practice of voice-texting while driving.
The Auto Club also believes that more should be done to strengthen current law. “Weak penalties for the state’s texting while driving ban clearly have failed to deter many drivers from breaking the law,” said Finnegan. “Unlike other life-endangering driving infractions, motorists are not assessed “points” on their driving record for texting and handheld cell phone violations. Research shows that imposing points increases driver compliance with traffic safety laws.
“Greater public awareness of the dangers of electronic device use behind the wheel is needed as well as stronger penalties,” said Finnegan, “especially since five years after the ban, more than three-quarters of a million citations issued by the CHP alone haven’t stopped drivers from using handheld cell phones or texting.”
California is one of 41 states, plus Washington D.C., that ban texting while driving for all drivers. The Golden State is one of 11 states that ban handheld cell phone use while driving.
The Auto Club has completed nine roadside observational surveys since 2008. These are the only U.S. surveys that regularly track pre- and post state law in-vehicle cell phone use and texting over time.
Auto Club in-vehicle cell phone and texting surveys were conducted using systematic random samples of about 4,000 vehicles passing seven roadside sites in Orange County. Surveys were conducted during: June 2008, prior to the cell phone law taking effect; July, August and October 2008; May and July 2009; March-April and July 2010, June 2011, June 2012 and June 2013. Surveys were conducted during commute hours on freeway entrances and exits, and on urban, suburban and small city roadways.