Will New California Cellphone Law Help Prevent Deadly Crashes?

As cellphones become ever more ubiquitous, more legislation is created to prevent the their use from leading to more traffic crashes, injuries and fatalities

Distracted driving remains a significant problem for California drivers. At the end of 2015, the Department of Motor Vehicles noted there were 25,914,851 registered drivers and 34,346,325 vehicles in the state. With all of those drivers and vehicles, traveling more than 300 billion miles every year means even a relatively small percentage of drivers being distracted can lead to a significant number of crashes, injuries and deaths.

Driver distraction has long been a concern. Driver inattention many causes, and California office of traffic safety reports that 80 percent of crashes involve some degree of driver inattention. It can be caused by everything from a conversation with other passengers to more problematic activities, like eating, shaving, applying makeup or brushing hair. In recent years, there has been an increased awareness of the dangers posed by cellphones, and states have struggled to develop effective laws to minimize this distraction.

New cellphone law in 2017

On January 1, 2017, a new law became effective that refines what actions a driver may take with a cellphone. The law allows the driver to touch the phone once, to "activate or deactivate a feature or function of the handheld wireless telephone or wireless communications device with the motion of a single swipe or tap of the driver's finger." It also requires that the device must be mounted on the dash or center console of the vehicle.

The intent of this law is to keep phones out of drivers' hands, where there are seen as being more distracting. The amendment was made to cover many of the newer capabilities of smartphones, such as updating Facebook pages, taking pictures with Snapchat, using the GPS feature and shooting video while driving.

The threat of cellphones

Some point out that enforcing the new law may be difficult, as law enforcement may have difficulty determine if a user only swiped once when manipulating a device. Others may wonder why an activity with a cellphone is inherently more distracting than say, eating a burger.

Cellphones have been singled out because they are "new" and we do not really have precise statistics on how many crashes are caused by drivers distracted by their use. This new law is an amendment to the existing Vehicle Code section that prohibits handheld use of a phone for talking or texting but allowed everything else.

These electronic devices pose a greater threat to drivers attention likely because of two factors. One, they are always with us. If you own such a device, it is only useful if you carry it at all times. This is different from most other distracting activities; while you may occasionally eat or drink or smoke in your vehicle, you probably don't engage in that activity every time you enter the vehicle.

Second, they are not really phones. They are handheld computers connected to the internet via a cellphone link. This means they can do practically anything a desktop computer can do, and that is their real dangers.

Mental distraction

While many laws initially attempt to prevent distraction from these devices by banning handheld use. That has proven inadequate. Research shows that it is not merely the holding of the device in a driver's hand that causes the distraction. The larger problem is that the activity the phone enables, whether conversation, texting, reading, viewing photos or video, are mentally distracting.

You cannot multitask

Research with drivers has shown that humans do not multitask well. Driving, as automotive engineers attempting to build self-driving vehicles have found, is a very demanding task. It is important to remember that we see with our brains, not our eyes. Conversations and other activities on a cellphone, even when hands-free, still cause inattention blindness. It is the cognitive distraction caused by that usage that causes crashes.

The cognitive distraction is also dangerous because it is not easily recognized. When you hold a phone in your hand and glance at it, you recognized that you are not watching the road and may attempt to quickly read the screen and put it down. Cognitive distraction is more insidious because during a hands-free conversation, you are less likely to recognize that you are distracted, which permits a greater exposure to the risk posed by inattention.

Don't do it

The new California law will likely be difficult to enforce, and may not lead to any reduction in traffic deaths caused by distraction since it will encourage hands-free usage. The grim reality of cellphone usage is that the only safe place in your car for a cellphone is turned off and out of reach.

Unfortunately, California may see many years of distracted driving fatalities before a law fully addresses this issue.