Distracted Driving: A Major Problem in California Despite Stricter Laws


In California, there are very strict laws intended to prevent distracted driving, explains an injury lawyer in the state. California law imposes a ban on handheld use of cell phones for all drivers, so no one in the state may make phone calls or use a cell phone unless a hands-free kit is used. California also has a complete ban on cell phone use, including when using a hands-free device, for novice drivers and for school bus drivers. Finally, California bans texting for all drivers.

“Despite all of the legislation prohibiting distracted driving, texting while driving continues to be a major traffic safety issue in the state,” explained California injury lawyer James Ballidis.

These bans are primary laws, with the exception of the ban related to novice drivers. This means that a driver can be pulled over just for violating cell phone laws, even if no other traffic offenses are being committed at the time. The comprehensive nature of the bans in California coupled with the fact that the bans are primary laws makes California one of the toughest states when it comes to distracted driving.

Recently, the laws in California got even tougher on distracted driving when the courts effectively ruled that even looking at your cell phone is an offense for which you could receive a ticket. The case arose out of a driver who found himself in stop-and-go traffic in the middle of Fresno. The driver decided he wanted to try to escape the traffic by taking the next exit and grabbed his cellular phone to pull up Google maps.

A highway patrol motorcycle officer subsequently pulled the driver over, indicating that he was ticketing him for making use of the phone. The driver fought the ticket and said that he was simply using the map to check directions. He lost his case and appealed, but the Appellate Division of Fresno County Superior court ruled against him.

The appellate court ruled that the bans in California exist to prevent distracted driving, and that the distraction is still present whether a driver is using the phone to text, to read emails, to check the time, or to read a map. Thus, a phone used as a GPS is considered to be as much of a distraction as a phone used to send an email, and the distracted driving laws would prevent this behavior.

While some might argue that this decision is an overreach and an example of the judge expanding, rather than interpreting, the written laws, the decision of the appellate court stands for now. California residents could thus be ticketed for distracted driving even for using their phone as a GPS.

Are Distracted Driving Laws Effective?

While California courts are expanding the reach of distracted driving laws related to cell phones, some are questioning whether these laws are effective at all. According to the Los Angeles Times, a recently released survey indicated that drivers are not reducing their use of cell phones despite the fact that the majority of states have imposed at least some limitations or bans on cell phone use.

Forty-one states and the District of Columbia, for example, have complete bans on texting and driving while 37 states and the District of Columbia restrict the use of all cell phones by novice drivers, explains a California injury lawyer. Yet, a U.S. Department of Transportation Survey revealed that as many as 660,000 people may be driving while using their cell phone at any given moment during the day.

Another recent study also indicated that people in the United States tend to use their phones and drive much more than their European counterparts. As reported by NBC News, an estimated 69 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 admitted that they had used their cell phone while driving at least one time in the prior 30 days. This far exceeded the 21 percent of British drivers and 40 percent of French adults who admitted to cell phone use behind the wheel. U.S. drivers were also much more likely than those in Europe to text, with 31 percent of U.S. drivers admitting to recent texting compared to just 15 percent in Spain.

Drivers in the U.S. may be texting and talking more than those in Europe because cell-phone bans are nearly universal in Europe while the laws differ from state-to-state here. However, even in states like California, many drivers seem to disregard the law.

Law enforcement officers cannot be everywhere at once. Only 450,000 drivers were convicted of violating California’s distracted driving laws last year. If there are truly 660,000 people at each daylight moment throughout the United States on their cell phones, there are likely a lot of Californians driving and texting or talking at any given moment, many of whom will get away without a ticket.

While these drivers may avoid a ticket, they could face civil charges if they cause an accident that harms others while talking or texting on their cell phone. In such cases, they could be held liable for the medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering of the victims of the crash.

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