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San Diego Drivers In Crashes While Using Phones Up 24% In A Decade

A graph showing the increase in drivers on cell phones who get into crashes over the past 10 years.
A graph showing the increase in drivers on cell phones who get into crashes over the past 10 years.

California's hands-free driving law went into effect in 2008

San Diego Drivers In Crashes While Using Phones Up 24% In A Decade
San Diego Drivers In Crashes While Using Phones Up 24% In A Decade GUEST: Joe Simitian, author, California's hands-free driving law

Law-enforcement officers will have a special eye out tomorrow or drivers using hand-held cell phones. It is a planned crackdown day, part of distracted drivers awareness month. It has been 10 years now since California's hands-free law went into effect, and all the most studies agree that handheld cell phone usage has gone down, destructive driving is still causing accidents and deaths on California's high whisper joining me is Joe Simitian, he is a Santa Clara supervisor and a former state senator. Supervisor Joe Simitian, thanks for joining us. What first got you involved in the issue of people driving and using their phones? >> You know, it was a question that came up at the candidate for him when I was first running for the state legislature way back when in the year 2000. And by the time, it was not something given much thought to. A question ask at a form, I frankly just sort of dismissed it in the moment, and then, a few days later someone said you know, there is a middle ground there. You do not have to be pro or con, absolutely all in, or supporting a prohibition. You could support a hands-free law. And, that led me to more and more thought and ultimately to introduce legislation as my very first year as a freshman assembly member that ultimately led to the adoption of a hands-free cell phone law in California put >> Some of the information coming from the California Highway Patrol and others authorities is a little confusing, they say distracted driving overall is down in the past 10 years. But, there were actually more drivers on their handheld cell phones, and were in car crashes than before your bill. What does that tell you about its effectiveness, or our record-keeping? >> Is a complex subject but I think there are things that are simple. Let me just lay those out. In the very first year, after the hands-free cell phone law went on the books, we saw a decline of 20% in fatalities, that was 700 fewer folks who lost their lives. And, that was exactly as predicted. We had some early studies from the Public policy Institute of California and they had looked at other states around the country that were three or four who were already implementing such a law and he said you know, we think once the law is on the books, we will see 300 to 900 fewer deaths every year. And sure enough, the first year we had the law in the books. We saw 700 fewer fatalities. That can only be good news. We also saw substantially fewer collisions, so you know, I wanted to know, is this function of the law, and the fact that there were 75,000 200,000 fewer collisions every year, reinforce the fact that the law had an impact. I think what we have seen since then, is that while there was good enforcement initially, and a lot of compliance, initially. That in the intervening years, we have not seen the same level of compliance, we have not seen the same level enforcement and that bad habit is starting to creep in again. The numbers will go up and down over time, but bottom line is, we know that distracted driving is a killer. We know from CHP data that a handheld cell phone is the number one cause of distracted driving accidents before the law went into effect. And we had the opportunity to step up our game again and hopefully we will using this time to acknowledge that we have done good work but we need to do more. >> What sort of trends do you think most or hamper this effort? For example, there are more cars with hands-free devices but there are more people now, who have smart phones then back in 2007. >> What we know for sure is this. If you want a lot to be effective, you need to have lots of public awareness and public education. You need to have meaningful find on the books. And then you have to have real enforcement. Unfortunately, the fine for a handheld cell phone violation is really pretty modest. The typical base fine for a violation here in California is $100. The base fine for a handheld cell phone violation is just $20 and what that means is the ticket is not as significant and it means that there is not a point in your drivers license if you violate the law. And so drivers don't take it quite as seriously as they do other traffic infractions. And unfortunately I think it also means that law enforcement can sometimes say oh, this is not a big deal. If the fine is this modest. I had to put a modest fine in the bill when I introduced it to get it passed. Over the years, before I left Sacramento, I tried to get Governor Brown to increase the fine to be commensurate with other fines on the books. And he just wouldn't go there. I think he felt that the existing fines were sufficient and should be adequate and I think the data suggests otherwise but what we need to see in the future is greater public awareness and public education. A more significant fine, and meaningful enforcement. If we had those three things in place, people will follow the law, if not, compliance will not be as good. >> In addition to that, safety experts say that hands-free devices are still a distraction for drivers. Do you think down the road, so to speak, we need more legislation to regulate hands-free use? >> If we have the hands-free on the books, and we have a lot in the books with respect to younger drivers, and the no texting law in the books, if we could get compliance, I think we would be in a very good place, having said that. I'm the first to acknowledge that you know, even hands-free, when you are on the phone, you are distracted. But my view was always, look, let's solve part of the problem even if we don't solve all of the problem. And making some progress is better than making no progress. For God sakes if you're going to be distracted by the virtue of your conversation, you should have at least have both hands-free on the wheel. >> I've been speaking with Joe Simitian. Thank you for speaking with us. >> Thanks.

More drivers in San Diego and statewide are getting into car crashes while using a phone 10 years after California’s law against texting or using a handheld phone went into effect.

Data from the California Highway Patrol show fewer people on phones got into crashes in the immediate aftermath of the law. But by 2011, drivers distracted by phones in crashes were back on the rise and surpassed 2007 levels by 2016.

San Diego police are participating in a statewide campaign on Friday to make distracted driving an enforcement priority.

CHP pointed to data showing 22,315 distracted drivers got into collisions last year, down significantly from 33,328 drivers in 2007. But those figures don't shed light on whether the law has curbed the dangers of using a cell phone while driving. Less than 10 percent of the drivers were distracted by a cell phone according to the CHP.

But the percentage of drivers in car crashes who cited cell phone use as at least one factor in the collision increased 37 percent over the last 10 years from 1,425 to 1,957. In San Diego, drivers who crashed while distracted by a phone rose 24 percent, from 70 in 2007 to 87 last year.

Another state study found 3.58 percent of drivers appeared to be using hand-held phones at any one time last year, based on observations of more than 200 locations across the state. That's about half of the 7.6 percent from 2016.

Santa Clara Supervisor Joe Simitian wrote California’s hands-free law when he was a state senator. He joins KPBS Midday Edition on Thursday to reflect on the effectiveness of the law.