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Hands-free cell phone law reducing number of drivers using device in vehicles

LOS ANGELES — The use of hand-held cell phones by California motorists dropped by two-thirds in the first three months after the law went into effect last July, according to an Automobile Club of Southern California survey of drivers using cell phones and electronic devises on Southland roads.

An observational survey by the Auto Club was conducted at three time periods – prior to the law taking effect in July, in August and October 2008.

During the first period prior to the law, the Auto Club found that 9.3 percent of drivers were using hand-held cell phones.

By August, hand-held cell phone use declined to 3.3 percent.

By October, three months after the law took effect, hand-held cell phone use was at 3.4 percent, a drop of 64 percent over the pre-law level.

“The findings demonstrate that the law had much of its intended effect of reducing the number of drivers using their hand-held cell phones,” said Steven A. Bloch, PhD, the Auto Club’s senior traffic safety researcher. “Our one-month survey showed a sharp drop in cell phone use. What’s impressive about our findings is that it shows that drivers are continuing to pay attention to the new law several months later.”

The 64-percent reduction in cell phone use in the Auto Club’s surveys is somewhat greater than that found in other US studies.

In New York and Washington, DC, cell phone use declined about 50 percent over the first few months under their new laws.

“It will be important to determine whether California can maintain its high level of reduction over the long-term,” Bloch said. New York, for example, did not, he added. “The Auto Club will be monitoring this issue.”

The Auto Club surveys also examined driver use of other electronic devices, such as text messaging and hands-free cell phones.

Before the law, nearly five percent of drivers were using some type of electronic device while driving.

Unexpectedly, use of other electronic devices also dropped from pre-law levels to 3.7 percent in August and falling slightly lower to 3.2 percent in October.

“The hands-free cell phone law appears to have had the positive effect of slightly reducing the distraction of electronic devices other than cell phones,” Bloch said. “Perhaps the message that all electronic devices can contribute to distraction is getting through.”

By the end of 2008, the California Highway Patrol had given out more than 50,000 driving citations for violating the hands-free cell phone law.

The Auto Club observational surveys were conducted at seven sites throughout Orange County. The surveys were conducted during morning, early afternoon and early evening commutes. More than 9,000 vehicles were sampled during the surveys.


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