Keeping the Roads and Highways Safe for Everyone

The idea for a law to restrict cellphone use while driving came to me as I was campaigning for election to the California State Legislature roughly 20 years ago. Almost everybody I met had a horror story, ranging from the annoying to the devastating—a loved one ending up in the hospital, or worse, a fatality.

With cellphone use still the number one cause of distracted driving, my “Hands-Free” cellphone bill might seem simply common sense now, but it was ahead of its time, and no slam dunk. It took me six efforts over a half-dozen years before it passed in 2006, clearing the 40-member Senate with a razor thin margin of 21 votes.

In a letter to then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, I argued that the traffic safety risk of cellphone use while driving was “measurable and significant,” pointing to solid research.

It seems the Governor didn’t need data to persuade him that having one hand on the wheel and the other on the phone was a dangerous combination.

Before signing the bill, according to the Los Angeles Times, Schwarzenegger had already warned his 16-year-old daughter that she would lose her driving privileges if he caught her driving with her cellphone in her hands, and sometimes followed her to make sure: “If she makes that mistake,” he said, “then I will take the car away from her, and she will drive with the bus, because it’s inexcusable.”

My bill didn’t take away anyone’s car or driving privileges. But it did have an immediate and dramatic impact.

A study conducted by the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center at the University of California, Berkeley, examined state crash records two years before and two years after my hands-free legislation took effect on July 1, 2008. Overall traffic deaths declined by 22 percent, while hand-held cellphone driver deaths went down 47 percent.

That translated into 700 fewer fatalities and 75,000 to 100,000 fewer collisions each year in California—the largest year-to-year drop in collisions in state history.

In human terms, that means that every single day in California there are a couple of folks who are going to sit down to dinner with their families who otherwise wouldn’t have made it.

California became just the 4th state in the country to prohibit motorists from holding cellphones while driving. I followed up with bills that outlawed texting while driving and drivers under the age of 18 from using any smartphone technology while driving.

Today, 24 states prohibit drivers from using hand-held cellphones while driving, and even more ban cellphone use by novice or teen drivers, and text messaging for all drivers.

In California, our hands-free law quickly became wildly popular, with a 93% approval rating cutting across all demographics. The poll question, “Is this important or not important?” got an 88% “important” response.

It’s clear that most California drivers ‘get it.’ They understand just how dangerous distracted driving is, and most are doing their part to make the roads safer. But we also know that there are still too many drivers texting and talking on hand-held phones.

In 2018, 2,841 people in this country died in crashes involving a distracted driver, and an estimated additional 400,000 people were injured. That’s fewer nationwide than the year my bill went into effect, but still far too many people who won’t make it home for dinner from an accident that could have been prevented with the use of readily available—and often no cost—hands-free technology.

With the passage of time, I think folks may have gotten a little lax again about cellphone use while driving. It’s been a tough two years working our way through COVID, and there’s a lot on everyone’s mind. But no phone call or text is worth the cost of a life.

April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and a chance for us to remember how important it is to drive with care. In partnership with the National Safety Council, our County has created a webpage—leavethephonealone.org—with useful facts and tips for avoiding the common dangers of distracted driving.

It’s all about how to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. We have the power to save lives on our roads and highways. So let’s do it, and be safe out there.

Joe Simitian
Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors

This article was originally published in the Saratoga Spotlight/Los Gatos Living in April 2022.

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Public Safety & Transportation

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