More California drivers driving while texting, talking on cellphones

The number of California drivers who use cellphones is on the rise, alarming state safety officials who say it appears to be leading to more crashes and injuries.

Nearly 13 percent of the state’s drivers were seen talking, texting or using a cellphone in some manner during a study conducted this spring by the state Office of Traffic Safety. That is up from 9 percent in 2015, and higher than the previous high of 11 percent in 2013.

The act is illegal in California unless done using a Bluetooth or other hands-free technology.

“Due to the difficulty of observing mobile-device use in a vehicle, these figures are considered minimums, with actual usage likely several points higher,” state safety officials said in a press statement issued Wednesday.

“These latest numbers are discouraging, but not totally unexpected,” said state traffic safety director Rhonda Craft. “The number of smartphones in the United States has gone from zero, 10 years ago, to over 200 million today.

“They have become so much a part of our lives that we can’t put them down, even when we know the danger.”

The number of California drivers killed or injured in collisions involving various types of distracted driving has been inching up annually, 10,162 in 2013, to 10,548 in 2014, to 11,090 in 2015.

Federal and state officials have been on a push in recent years to educate drivers about distracted driving dangers, and encourage people to put down their cellphones when behind the wheel. The state Office of Traffic Safety has conducted a social media campaign asking drivers to “Silence the Distraction.”

The observational survey, conducted during daylight in 17 counties around the state in March, found an increase in the number of people using smartphones while driving during rush hour, and is more common in urban than rural areas. The study also found that the number of drivers typing or posting on their devices had increased in the last year by more than one-third.

Drivers of all ages talk or text while driving, the study found, but drivers estimated to be in the 16- to 24-year-old age group had higher averages of distracted driving while using a smartphone.

“The study results are disturbing,” CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow said. “Every time someone drives distracted, they are putting themselves, their passengers and everyone on or near the roadway at risk.”

The California Highway Patrol has issued 13,496 citations for distracted-driving violations. Some hand-held uses of cellphones, such as programming and reading mapping software, has been ruled by courts to be legal, even though it can be highly distracting, taking a drivers’ eyes off the road for extended periods.

A new bill, AB 1785 by Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, would clarify that drivers cannot “operate an electronic device that is held in their hand while driving.”

In a press statement, Quirk said, “a driver may only use a device if it is mounted on the dashboard and operated by a single swipe or tap of the driver’s finger. This will enable drivers to benefit from GPS technology while ensuring that the driver has both hands on the wheel.”

State highway safety officials said they plan to increase their spending this fiscal year on programs that warn people about the dangers of distracted driving and that encourage drivers to put their smartphones away when behind the wheel.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak