For millions of California motorists, the July 1 law requiring cell phones to only be used with hands-free devices while driving a vehicle is the most wrenching safety-mandated change of automotive habits since not wearing seat belts became illegal in 1986. Anyone present two decades ago would remember how much complaining went on when police began writing $88 tickets for no-seat-belt first offenses.
Many drivers resisted buckling up as long as possible. They grumbled that wearing seat belts was inconvenient, confining and sissified — unsuitable for free-spirited Californians. Seat-belt haters argued, quite seriously, that sometimes it could be more injurious to be belted into a crashed car instead of being unrestrained and thrown free.
It took years, but the grousing gradually faded away. Virtually all drivers now reflexively buckle up every time they turn the ignition key. And the nationwide numbers have indisputably proven that wearing contemporary three-point seat belts has prevented countless major injuries and saved innumerable lives.
California’s brand-new automotive cell phone restrictions can be seen as a sequel to the earlier cold-turkey readjustment — “Seatbelt Withdrawal Pains II.” In other words, don’t worry. Even cell phone addicts will be able to successfully stop driving with phones held to their ears, and the changeover will be worthwhile.
As with those ’80s seat-belt statistics, the record already proves that talking on a handheld cell phone while driving is dangerous; and four similar out-of-state laws are saving lives. California Highway Patrol tallies blamed 789 collisions on handheld cell phones and only 53 on hands-free phones in 2007. That is actually a one-third improvement from the prior two years, which each had more than 1,200 collisions tied to handheld cell phone usage, but fewer than 75 while on hands-free.
The CHP also attributed seven fatal crashes to handheld cell phones for three of the last four years, with 2005 only slightly off pace, with six deaths. Handheld cellular-related injury collisions peaked at 539 in 2006, while just 28 were associated with hands-free talking.
As for the safety improvements produced after similar handheld cell bans were enacted in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington, D.C. — there were 17 percent fewer fatalities within six months, even during rush hours. The most spectacular change was a 52 percent drop in bad-weather fatalities, with 38 percent fewer crash deaths on wet roads not far behind.
This post-ban study conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California estimated that our state’s new hands-free law would save 300 lives yearly, preventing 7 percent of the more than 4,000 annual deaths on California roads. Certainly that should be a sufficiently major improvement to make it worth everybody getting accustomed to hands-free cell phone talking.