Research: Hands-Free Law Might Not Make California Roads Safer

March 26, 2008

A growing body of evidence suggests California requiring adult drivers to use hands-free devices with their cell phones will do little to reduce crashes.

Research shows being a distracted driver is not necessarily about having both hands on the wheel, it’s more about focusing attention on the road.

“There’s a common misperception that hands-free phones are safer when the research clearly suggests that they they’re both equally risky,” said Arthur Goodwin, a researcher at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center.

On July 1, California joins five other states and the District of Columbia in requiring adult drivers to go hands-free while talking on the phone. The July 1 date is also when an additional law banning teenage drivers from using all electronic devices — such as cell phones, pagers and laptops — while behind the wheel takes effect as well.

“You don’t have to stop talking on your cell phone, but use a headset or use a speaker system, and you will be fine,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said when he signed the first hands-free bill into law in September 2006.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, said he’s sure the new law will save lives.

“There isn’t a study in the world that says you’re safer driving with a cell phone clutched to your ear than when you are driving with both hands on the wheel,” he said.

One survey found up to 73 percent of Americans at least occasionally use cell phones while driving.

A 2003 study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis estimated that there were nearly 2,600 deaths and 12,000 serious-to-critical injuries a year in crashes involving drivers using cell phones.

Violators of the new law will be fined $20 for the first offense and $50 for subsequent offenses.

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