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California's phone ban: Maybe not such a bad idea after all

March 7, 2012 |  8:00 am

We may owe state Sen. Joe Simitian an apology.The Palo Alto Democrat, who sponsored the 2008 bill that banned driving with a handheld cellphone in California, introduced a bill two years ago that would more than double the fine for the infraction. We asserted in a 2010 editorial that it was a bad idea because it would have little or no impact on public safety and looked a lot like a backdoor way of raising state revenues. The bill was approved, but we were thrilled when Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it under the rationale that the fine is already high enough to discourage people from dialing while driving.

A study released Monday by UC Berkeley's Safe Transportation Research and Education Center suggests we may have been wrong, at least about the safety part. Contradicting nearly all of the other research on the issue, it found that traffic fatalities have dropped significantly since the 2008 ban went into effect.

In our defense, our beef with the phone ban was based on voluminous research that showed no difference in the number of accidents involving drivers using handheld cellphones as opposed to hands-free devices such as Bluetooth. There was, for example, a 2010 study by the Highway Loss Data Institute that found no reductions in crashes in states that passed laws like Simitian's. Other studies before that had concluded that although talking on a cellphone while driving is indeed dangerous -- the equivalent of driving while legally drunk-- it's the conversation that distracts drivers, not the fact that one is holding a phone to one's ear while having it. Theoretically, then, banning handheld phones should make no difference; the only way to reduce the danger would be to forbid all cellphone use by drivers.

But the Berkeley study points up a phenomenon we hadn't anticipated. It compared traffic deaths in the two years preceding the 2008 ban and the two years following it, and found that overall deaths dropped 22% and that deaths of drivers using handheld cellphones dropped 47%. Unrelated research might explain why this happened: A survey by the state Office of Traffic Safety in 2010 found that in states with handheld phone bans, 44% of drivers reported they didn't use a cellphone at all while driving -- handheld or hands-free -- compared to 30% in states without such laws. In other words, it's still quite possible that Bluetooth has no impact on safety but the handheld ban discouraged people from talking on their phones at all. Maybe that's because they're too cheap to buy a Bluetooth device, or maybe it's because the ban itself raised awareness that driving while dialing was dangerous. Either way, it seems that the ban has made a difference.

None of this is to say that Simitian's proposal to raise the fines -- and, undiscouraged by Brown's veto, he's back with another bill, SB 1310,to do just that -- is a good idea. With assorted state and local fees tacked on, a cellphone ticket costs drivers $159 for a first offense, and if that isn't enough to persuade them to put their phones down, I don't see why Simitian's plan to boost the total would make much difference. But it appears that cracking down on handheld phones wasn't as lousy an idea as we'd thought.


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Photo: Drivers enjoy the freedom to hold phones to their ears, just before California's ban on the practice was enacted in 2008. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

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