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Costs and benefits of the hands-free cell phone law

Beginning Tuesday July 1st, the states of California and Washington will follow in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Utah’s footsteps by requiring drivers to use a hands-free device when talking on their cell phones. According to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times, “Getting people’s hands off their phones and onto their steering wheels will save lives and make California’s roads safer.” But will it really? Many experts believe the sheer fact that you are talking on your phone and therefore distracted is the reason cell phones get people into accidents, not the fact that they are holding it in their hands.

Woman in Car on Cell Phone
While it remains to be seen how this law will affect driver safety, we’ve taken a closer look at the law and how using hands-free devices may not make a difference when talking and driving.

the basics of the hands-free law

This law prohibits all drivers from holding a cell phone to their ear while driving, unless they are making a call to an emergency services agency such as a medical provider or fire department. However, drivers 18 and older may use a hands-free device such as a Bluetooth, or utilize their speakerphone option when making casual calls. Drivers 18 and under are strictly prohibited from using a cell phone at all. 

If caught using a wireless phone while driving in California, your first offense will cost $20, with following tickets costing $50 and up. In Washington, where their hands-free law considers talking and driving a secondary offense, meaning you must be pulled over for something else, like speeding before you can be ticketed for using your cell phone, you will be slapped with a $124 fine. Even though it is a reportable offense, the DMV will not assign a violation point on your driver’s license. Interestingly, while you can still be pulled over at an officer’s discretion, this new law does not necessarily prohibit you from texting or dialing while driving.

will it make a difference?

As most people don’t admit to using their phone at the time of an accident, it seems difficult to get an actual estimate on how many accidents are avoided or caused by the use or non-use of cell phones. There are also reports that these laws aren’t strictly enforced by the police.

While those in favor of the law cite studies stating over 300 fewer people will die each year as a result of the new law, most experts point to the fact that the actual conversation, not holding the phone is what leads to distraction and slower reaction times. As reported by the L.A. Times, a study published in the Human Factors journal, found that compared with drivers exceeding the legal blood alcohol limit, users of both hand-held and hands-free cell phones reacted 18% slower to a car braking in front of them and were more likely to get in a rear-end collision. Another study published this past April in Brain Research, found that drivers who were actively engaged in a listening and responding activity veered off the road and onto the shoulder almost 50% more often than those allowed to focus solely on driving.

shut up and drive

Being in your car is not the time to multi-task. Distractions such as applying makeup, playing with the radio and even talking on the phone while driving can lead to accidents. Enforcing a hands-free cell phone law seems to be a step in the right direction, but it may not be the answer. We’re all guilty of using our time stuck in traffic to make important or even unimportant phone calls, but in reality, the safest thing to do when you need to make a call, is to pull over and dial.

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