Blog Update (June 29, 2007): Note that despite any rumors to the contrary, the law discussed in this entry takes effect on July 1, 2008, NOT 2007. It will then, as in other states with similar even stricter laws, be increasingly ignored as time goes by, while law enforcement rightly concentrates instead on serious issues.
Greetings. As you know, I frequently speak out against what I view as silly laws that fly in the face of logic, science, or just plainly observable facts.
In yet another proof that reality and politics often don't mix, lawmakers here in California are poised (after many years of refusing to go along with the bill's main sponsor) to approve a ban on handheld cell phones when driving. This may happen as soon as next week. You can count on Arnold, desperate for popular actions he can take so close to election day, to sign the bill.
All of us have been annoyed by the gabbing cell phone user who seems to be driving oblivious to everything around them. So without a doubt this law will have wide appeal. And if experience in other states holds, the law will have little or no long-term positive safety effects, and handheld cell phone use will quickly rise back to pre-law levels after a brief initial reduction.
The reasons are obvious. Study after study shows that distracted driving of any kind is a key factor in accidents. While someone holding a cell phone clamped to their ear is easy to spot, we're less aware of the radio manipulators, people screaming at their children in the back seat, makeup applicators, food eaters, and any of a myriad number of other distracted drivers. In fact, studies have shown that the most common distractions leading to accidents when driving are other people inside the vehicle or things seen outside the vehicle.
Even worse, research shows quite clearly that talking on hands-free cell phones (still permitted under the bill) is equally distracting as using a handheld device. It's the remote conversation itself that is the real distraction, not the act of holding the cell phone -- plus there's all the situations where people fumble around to answer or dial a call even on a hands-free cell phone.
When proponents of this legislation are presented with these inconvenient facts, they tend to reply with, "Oh well, at least we're doing something..."
"Something" isn't good enough when it's based on bad science. If you really want to remove cell phones as a distraction, you need to ban them totally when driving -- handheld or hands-free, as has been done in some other countries. I'm not advocating this, nor do I think that politicians here have the guts for such actions anyway. In fact, banning children from cars might be far more effective in terms of reducing accidents, however unlikely the prospect.
To a certain extent this law will be a paper tiger. Major California cities don't have enough police to deal with serious crime, much less pulling over people for illegal cell phone use. And the bill's penalties -- $20 for first offense, $50 for subsequent -- will hardly be seen as an onerous burden by most drivers in an era of $3+ gasoline.
But this law itself is still primarily pandering to voters in a manner that flies in the face of science. Perhaps laws officially recognizing astrology will be next here in the Golden State.
Blog Update (September 1, 2006): Update on California Cell Phone Ban Silliness