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Out of the car, Siri. California urged to ban even hands-free cellphone use for drivers

We rode along with a CHP officer for Distracted Driving Awareness Month; here’s what we learned

The California Highway Patrol kicked off Distracted Driving Awareness Month and California Teen Safe Driving Week on April 3, 2019. A CHP officer explained typical signs of a distracted driver.
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The California Highway Patrol kicked off Distracted Driving Awareness Month and California Teen Safe Driving Week on April 3, 2019. A CHP officer explained typical signs of a distracted driver.

California already busts drivers for holding their phones behind the wheel – but it got a call Wednesday to become the first state to ban even hands-free use of electronic devices by motorists.

At the kickoff event Wednesday at Sacramento State for Distracted Driving Awareness Month and California Teen Safe Driving Week, Nicholas Worrell of the National Transportation Safety Board urged California to pass such landmark legislation.

He called distracted driving a “battle of self-defense” for young people.

The event was hosted by the California Highway Patrol, the NTSB, and Impact Teen Drivers, a Sacramento-based nonprofit. It was followed by roundtable discussions covering teen safe driving as well as media ride-alongs with CHP officers to observe distracted drivers.

“Hands-free is not risk-free,” Worrell, who is the chief of the Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications at the NTSB, said. While no state has enacted the NTSB’s recommendation of a ban for all hand-held and hands-free portable electronic devices, “If California will lead, the NTSB stands ready to support them,” Worrell said.

The NTSB first made this recommendation in 2011, two years after texting on a hand-held device while driving became illegal in California. The most recent California cellphone law, enacted in 2017, prohibits drivers from holding cellphones at all, even at traffic stops. A bill proposed by Assemblymen Tom Daly, D-Anaheim, and Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, would add a point to a driver’s license for being caught on a cellphone while driving. If passed, it would go into effect in 2021.

The California Office of Traffic Safety found in an observational study that 4.5 percent of drivers in 2018 used their phones illegally, up from 3.6 percent in 2017 but below 2016’s 7.6 percent. Last year, the Sacramento Police Department issued more than 2,500 citations to people operating cellphones while driving.

But the problem won’t be solved overnight, officials said.

“With cellphones, it’s going to be generational to teach,” said CHP Officer Michael Bradley. “Just like seat belts – when seat belts first came in the early ‘80s in California. people were like, ‘You’re violating my right.’” But as of 2016, about 97 percent of Californians complied with seat belt laws.

“As generations learn and adapt to the law, then (reducing distracted driving) will become easier,” Bradley said.

New technology inside cars may actually be contributing to an increase in distracted driving, according to Bradley. Because newer vehicles often feature touchscreens instead of knobs and buttons with specific functions, drivers have to take their eyes off the road more often to do things like change the radio station or the temperature.

“I think you’re actually more distracted than when you had hard buttons when you could kind of feel and look at the road. Now you have to look at the screen to find which screen you’re on,” Bradley said. “You see a lot of people looking down towards their dash. That’s what I’m seeing more than anything else.”

Bradley has been an officer with CHP for 24 years, and he said he most commonly notices distracted drivers during the morning commute, when stop-and-go traffic sometimes means people are eating or doing makeup behind the wheel. Distracted driving is a classification that includes not only technology use, but anything that can take a driver’s eyes off the road.

Distracted Driving Awareness Month and California Teen Safe Driving Week aim to change driver behavior through increased education.

Throughout April, the Sacramento Police Department will have additional officers on patrol looking specifically for distracted drivers, according to a press release.

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