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Because of the high number of car accidents caused by distracted driving, April is observed as National Distracted Driving Awareness Month to focus attention on the problem. Statistics show that in California, as well as nationwide, motorists who have their attention diverted from the road by such things as receiving and sending texts or making cell phone calls often end up in serious accidents.

California has adopted laws outlawing talking on handheld cell phones or texting while behind the wheel. The California Highway Patrol has announced that it will observe the month by enforcing a renewed crackdown on these practices by motorists, along with the cooperation of approximately 200 local law enforcement departments.

They believe that the legal ban on driving while texting or calling has been a factor in the 22 percent decline in traffic fatalities in the two years since its enactment. Distractions, a spokesman for the CHP asserts, turn a normally good driver into the equivalent of a "zombie" behind the wheel, unable to react in time to highway dangers and changing traffic conditions.

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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.

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