California Toughens Its Law Prohibiting Cellphone Use While Driving — Is Your State Next?

CaliforniaDrivers who are distracted by cellphones present an increasing danger on the nation’s roads. In an effort to discourage drivers from using their cellphones while driving, states have toughened their laws against distracted driving, often regulating the way that drivers can interact with a cellphone.

California recently amended its law to make it more difficult for drivers to make cellphone calls. While most laws prohibit drivers from texting and surfing the internet on their phones, the new California law makes it illegal for a driver to do more than tap or swipe a phone, even when it is mounted on a windshield and operating in hands-free mode.

How the Law Changed

California’s former law took effect in 2009. That law prohibited drivers from sending or reading a text message, instant message, email, or any form of text-based communication while driving. Another law prohibited drivers from surfing the web while driving. Both of those prohibitions remain in effect under California’s new law.

A related law prohibited California drivers from using a cellphone while driving if the driver held the phone in his or her head. It was legal to make or receive calls on a cellphone using a “hands-free” device, provided that the phone was mounted on the dashboard or windshield.

The former law also permitted drivers to dial a mounted phone while driving. The new law eliminates that option. Drivers are still prohibited from operating a cellphone while holding it, but they are also prohibited from operating a mounted phone with more than a single tap or swipe using the driver’s finger. While the law therefore continues to allow hands-free operation, dialing is not allowed unless it can be accomplished with one motion or by using a voice-activated command.

The prohibition against holding the phone while operating it, as well as the law against texting, apply whenever the engine is running and the vehicle is not legally parked. Texting, dialing, or holding a phone to make a call while stopped at a red light is illegal. Drivers must pull over and legally park before texting, reading texts, holding the phone, or operating a mounted phone with more than a single touch.

Does the Law Solve the Problem?

Some people argue that laws like California’s do not go far enough. They point to studies that find all cellphone conversations to be dangerous because they take a driver’s attention away from potential road hazards. One recent study suggests that when drivers are asked a question, they take a moment to visualize the answer, causing a delay of up to one second in responding to observed hazards (such as a pedestrian entering the road).

The argument that conversations are potentially deadly, even using a hands-free device, might suggest that a driver should be prohibited from talking to a passenger. However, other studies suggest that any distraction caused by conversations between vehicle occupants may be offset by the passenger’s ability to observe the road and to warn the driver when hazards appear. Of course, controlled studies in a laboratory setting may not reflect the reality of driving, no matter how well-designed they might be.

In addition, critics of the law wonder why truck drivers are allowed to hold and operate the microphone of a citizen’s band radio but cannot (at least in California) answer a cellphone call while holding the phone. The likely answer is that a public outcry has arisen against cellphone use but not against the use of radios, even if they might be just as dangerous. And passenger car drivers, unlike trucking companies, don’t employ lobbyists to fight against inconvenient laws.

Some observers point out that the problem is distracted driving, regardless of the cause of the distraction, and that drivers who aren’t distracted should not be penalized for holding a phone (particularly when they are waiting for a light to change). It may be more sensible to ticket only those drivers who show signs of being distracted, regardless of the reason for the distraction.

Holding a cellphone to a driver’s ear may not be any more distracting than eating a cheeseburger, fiddling with a GPS device on the dashboard, or looking in the mirror to apply lipstick, but none of those actions are illegal. That observation is usually countered with the argument that drivers do lots of dangerous things, but cellphone use while driving has become so prevalent that it needs to be discouraged with specific legislation.

State Laws Regulating Cellphone Use

According to Distraction.gov, the federal government’s website devoted to distracted driving:

  • 46 states and D.C. prohibit all drivers from texting while driving
  • 2 additional states prohibit only novice drivers from texting while driving
  • 1 additional state prohibits only school bus drivers from texting while driving

Texting while driving usually requires a driver to look at the phone, not the road. States have been less inclined to ban cellphone use by experienced drivers. No state completely forbids all drivers from using a cellphone while driving, but:

  • 14 states and D.C. prohibit handheld cellphone use
  • 38 states and D.C. prohibit all cellphone use by novice drivers
  • 20 states and D.C. prohibit all cellphone use by school bus drivers

The laws differ in many respects, from definitions of cellphone use to exceptions for emergency calls. The trend may be to enact laws that, like California’s, prohibit drivers from making or answering calls while holding the cellphone. The jury is out, however, on whether those laws actually prevent crashes. A recent review of eleven studies concluded that, “despite the proliferation of laws limiting drivers’ cellphone use, it is unclear whether they are having the desired effects on safety.”

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