Can a Law Stop Distracted Driving? California Hopes to Find Out.
By JONAH ENGEL BROMWICH
Jan 5 2017
Thousands of people die in distracted driving accidents every year, and California is hoping to do something about it.
A new law went into effect last week in the state with an aim toward cutting down on the number of drivers using smartphones. New federal data released last week showed that more than 3,400 people were killed in accidents that involved at least one distracted driver in 2015.
As traffic deaths rise at the highest rates in the last half-century, many states have taken steps to reduce distracted driving. Although 46 states and the District of Columbia ban texting by drivers, only 14 prohibit the use of any mobile device while driving.
With its new law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September and effective Jan. 1, California has gone further than most states in prohibiting the use of cellphones, banning drivers from even holding mobile devices while driving.
The law builds on earlier legislation that prevented drivers from talking and texting but did not prohibit them from streaming video, for instance, or using apps like Facebook and Twitter.
Some drivers use features other than texting and talking while on the road, which can result in deadly crashes. Late last month, a family filed a lawsuit against Apple, over a 2014 accident in which a driver using FaceTime crashed into the family’s car, killing their 5-year-old daughter.
Jennifer Ryan, the director of state relations for the travel organization AAA, said that the California measure matched a larger trend where states were bringing legislation up to date with contemporary phones. Many of the extant laws were passed before smartphones offered the number of interactive features that they do today, she said.
“We certainly anticipate there to be many bills introduced this year,” she added.
Ms. Ryan said that California’s provisions were particularly broad and although it was “definitely a bellwether state,” states tended to evaluate policy solutions to distracted driving independently. AAA expects to see legislation introduced to address distracted driving in about 10 states, including Massachusetts, Missouri, Wisconsin, Virginia and Iowa.
New statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that 272 teenagers were killed in 2015 in what the agency described as distraction-affected crashes. They also show that 3,263 of the 3,477 people killed in such crashes that year had been distracted while driving.
California’s law goes beyond even what the federal agency recommends to prevent distracted driving, according to Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for the agency.
“We certainly have encouraged states to adopt ‘no texting and driving’ laws, that’s been a big focus,” Mr. Thomas said. “The most recent action has been on what can be done on manufacturers of both cars and devices on how to minimize distraction.”
But even given California’s comparatively extensive law, some experts are unconvinced that legislation alone can significantly reduce the threat of distracted driving.