When California passed its law forbidding drivers from using handheld cellphones in 2008, there was plenty of uproar. Opponents called the law unfair, saying there were many more distractions causing car accidents than cellphones alone. This is undoubtedly true: Eating, makeup application and passengers did then and still do present a hazard for drivers in California. But the elimination of one of these distractions has led to a significant decline in fatal crashes.
According to a study by the state Office of Traffic Safety, the total number of traffic fatalities in the state declined by 22 percent since the law went into effect. And the number of deaths attributed to cellphone use by drivers decreased by a whopping 47 percent. The figures are remarkable considering the number of times the hands-free cellphone bill failed to pass. State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, submitted a version of the bill for five consecutive years and was shot down every time before the Legislature finally passed the bill in 2006.
Many naysayers of the bill claimed it would be impossible to enforce, and it's true that some drivers still manage to get away with holding a phone to their ear. But in the first year the law was in place, the California Highway Patrol reported 700 fewer fatal accidents and 75,000 to 100,000 fewer collisions. The numbers surprised even those who supported the bill.
The base fine for breaking the hands-free cellphone law is a mere $20, but the CHP has been vigorous in enforcing it. And lawmakers and agency heads in other states have taken notice. "California is one of the few states that has been very aggressively enforcing its cellphone law," said the executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association in Washington, D.C. "It shows that enforcement works, that other states should look at what California has done and follow its lead."
Unfortunately, no law can put a stop to fatal car accidents altogether. People are injured and killed in crashes for a variety of reasons, and even if we follow the law, we can't control other drivers' actions. But it's comforting to know that at least one major distraction is being enforced, keeping drivers and passengers a little bit safer.
Source: Contra Costa Times, "Cellphone-related fatal car crashes are down 47%," Bruce Newman, March 5, 2012
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