Faced with a tough year-old cellphone law, more California drivers are putting their devices aside entirely when behind the wheel, a new study shows.
The study by the state Office of Traffic Safety found that fewer than 4 percent of drivers appear to be picking up and using their cellphones, a notable drop from a year ago when the same analysis found that nearly 8 percent of drivers were on their cellphones.
California safety officials are cautiously cheering what they say may be the start of a trend toward less distracted driving.
Office of Traffic Safety spokeswoman Camille Travis said the tough California law is a key part of the decreasing numbers, along with several years of public-service messages urging people to put their cellphones down and focus on the road.
“This is behavioral change,” Travis said. “People are starting to get the gist of it.”
The cellphone law, which went into effect in January 2017, prohibits drivers from holding their devices in their hands for any reason.
It plugged what safety officials called a major loophole in the state’s earlier, groundbreaking hands-free cellphone laws. Those laws only banned talking and texting on hand-held phones while driving. But any other hand-held use of a smartphone, such as reading maps, shooting videos or scanning Facebook, was technically legal.
Under the 2017 law, drivers can still use their cellphones if they do it hands-free, which often means voice activated and operated. However, those phones must be mounted on the dashboard or windshield or console. With a mounted phone, the law allows the driver to touch the device only once while driving, to “activate or deactivate a feature or function ... with the motion of a single swipe or tap of the driver’s finger.”
Since the law went into effect, California Highway Patrol officers have increased the number of citations they are giving to motorists. CHP data show citation issuance jumped from 66,000 in 2016 to more than 98,000 in 2017. The first ticket a driver receives for an infraction likely will exceed $150.
Other statistics, however, show mixed results regarding inattention-related crashes.
CHP data show that the number of distraction-related crashes involving cellphones was down slightly in 2017 from 2016; the numbers dropped from 1,968 to 1,894. However, the CHP counted the same number of fatal crashes involving cellphone-using drivers the past two years. That figure was 18 in both 2016 and 2017. And the number of cellphone using drivers in injury crashes was slightly up, according to preliminary data, from 849 in 2016 to 877 in 2017.
There is some uncertainty as well among state officials about whether results from the new OTS study show that drivers are more willing to obey the law, or whether more drivers have switched to new technologies that allow them to talk, text and use apps hands-free. State safety officials say they would prefer that drivers refrain from using their cellphones in any way while driving.
Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, the author of the law, said it has eliminated an excuse drivers used to have when pulled over, when they could tell officers they were just looking at their mapping directions on their phones.
But, he said recently, he needs to see more longer-term data to know if Californians truly are putting aside their phones.
“There is analysis that has to be done,” he said. But he added: “We’re headed in the right direction.”
The OTS study, which was conducted over several months by observers at 204 roadside sites in 17 counties around the state, found that 3.58 percent of drivers were on hand-held cell phones when observed. That is down from 7.6 percent observed the previous year and 5.4 percent the year before that.
A bit less than one-third of drivers in the most recent study were holding the phone to their ear. Slightly more than one-third were talking on it but not holding it to their ear, and about 40 percent were “manipulating” their phone, likely using an app or some form of social media.
Notably, drivers were using their phones less frequently when they had passengers in the car. They also used their phones less when they were on highways rather than on local roads.