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A dropped call on cellphone law

Is a bill to increase fines for violations of California's cellphone law mostly a revenue grab?

California First Lady Maria Shriver might be our most famous Bluetooth scofflaw, but she’s far from the only one. The 2006 state law that bans using a hand-held cellphone while driving is spottily enforced and, judging from anecdotal evidence, widely disregarded; moreover, there’s no indication that its passage has had any impact on safety. But that’s not stopping its author from doubling down.

Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) has introduced a bill that would hike the fine for a first offense from $20 to $50, and for a subsequent one from $50 to $100. Simitian, who is also behind state laws that ban texting while driving and cellphone use for drivers under 18, says the higher fines will increase compliance with the law. His latest bill would also raise the texting-while-driving fine fivefold, from $20 to $100, and apply the hands-free cellphone law to bicyclists.

As justification for all this, Simitian points to collision data recently released by the California Highway Patrol that appear to show a sharp drop in accidents caused by distractions from hand-held cellphones in the six months after the hands-free law went into effect in July 2008. But it’s junk science. The data come from accidents in which drivers reported to CHP officers that they were distracted by something (children, radios, pets, etc.). From January to June 2008, there were 612 reports of accidents in which distraction from a hand-held cellphone was a factor. From July to December, there were only 315. This is hardly evidence of a safety improvement; not only is the survey period too short for definitive conclusions, but after July, drivers were probably less willing to admit that their accidents occurred while they were using hand-held cellphones, because they might have been ticketed.

More convincing is a study released last month by the Highway Loss Data Institute, which found no difference in the rate of crashes in California before and after the law went into effect. But then, scientists had predicted this outcome; studies and statistical reviews have widely concluded that although talking on a cellphone does increase the risk of an accident, the risk is the same whether drivers are using a hand-held device or not. Researchers believe it’s the conversation that’s distracting, not the device.

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We’ve got to suspect that Simitian’s latest bill is more about raising money than improving public safety. We don’t have a problem with hiking the fine for texting while driving (a spectacularly reckless act), and we’re open to laws that would genuinely reduce the risk of phone-related accidents. But relentless increases in traffic fines by cities and Sacramento are already turning California into a revenue-trap state. The Legislature should hang up on the hands-free bill.


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