Here’s some good news about our state government: A 2008 law approved in the Legislature is doing just what the author intended. It’s saving lives.
We’re talking, hands-free of course, about the cell phone law sponsored by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto (a portion of Simitian’s Senate district is in Santa Cruz County).
A new study by UC Berkeley released this week shows that deaths among drivers using hand-held phones dropped 47 percent in the two years after the law took effect in July 2008.
In the two years leading up to the law, 100 drivers died while using a hand-held cell phone — but the number of deaths dropped to 53 in the next two years, according to the university’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center found. You need only keep your eyes open while on the road — and we sincerely hope you do — to see what this law has wrought. Far fewer drivers are holding phones up to their ears as law enforcement helps by issuing tickets when drivers are spotted with one hand on a phone and another on the wheel. We all have horror stories about either collisions or near misses involving a driver talking on a cell phone. Some of these stories can involve … us. What seemed a universal scourge now has become the exception more than the norm. A driver barreling down the road holding up a cell phone is becoming as publicly unacceptable as driving while drunk — almost as deadly and more readily recognizable.
The study, which relied on police-reported traffic crashes, also found that deaths caused by hands-free cellphone use — which is legal — also dropped by half. Traffic-safety experts say the ban on handheld cell phones may have helped, since even hands-free drivers have taken note of the dangers from any distracted driving.
No matter how you hold it, however, the ban has made a difference.
We hope carmakers take notice. The latest gee-whiz promotional distraction is the use of apps in vehicles — touch-screen dashboard displays allowing drivers to access the Internet. There’s talk about requiring the manufacturers to ensure these gadgets shut off automatically once a vehicle starts moving. Let’s hope it’s more than talk. Because too many people continue to break the handheld law. That’s why Simitian — one of the most effective legislators in California, but soon stepping down because of term limits — has reintroduced his bill raising the fines against yakking drivers and the incomprehensibly selfish motorists who insist on texting while behind the wheel.
The bill, SB 1310, would hike the base fine from $20 to $50 (the amount paid is far higher, about $160 with assorted fees, on average), assess a point against the driving record of a repeat offender and allow cops to pull over drivers they think are ignoring the law.
Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed Simitian’s last attempt at toughening the law, saying the fine was already high enough to discourage people from dialing while driving. That was a mistake. This law has saved lives — and will save even more if the penalties bring more drivers to take it seriously.
This post will be the Sentinel Editorial for Friday, March 9, 2012