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April 22, 2011 > Perils of distracted driving

Perils of distracted driving

By Meenu Gupta
Photo Courtesy of California Office of Traffic Safety

Use of a wireless device is the prime reason for driver inattention, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Drivers using cell phones are four times as likely to be involved in injury accidents. In April, more than 225 local law enforcement agencies, including the California Highway Patrol (CHP), are conducting 'zero tolerance' enforcement mobilizations as part of California's Distracted Driving Awareness Month. The fine for a first time texting or hand-held cell phone violation is $159; subsequent tickets cost $279.

Chris Cochran, Assistant Director, California Office of Traffic Safety talked to TCV about impaired driving efforts and programs in California. "The legislature has addressed it and since then, all levels of California Government, particularly the California Highway Patrol and Office of Traffic Safety which I'm a part of, have been increasing the amount and frequency of special enforcement and public awareness campaigns," said Cochran. "Most particular is the campaign for both enforcement and public awareness that is occurring now during the month of April," he said. California is currently conducting the nation's first statewide observational distracted driving survey.

When asked about the total number of citations issued as part of this campaign, Cochran said, "We don't have a total for the campaign as yet because it just started. The number of citations issued by the California Highway Patrol since the laws came into existence is over 350,000. The number does not include the citations issued by the local Police departments and we figure that that's probably pushing the total number up close to half a million."

Cell phone conversations are very different and pose a much higher risk in their level of distraction and effect on drivers when compared to passenger conversations. People talking on cell phones while driving experience "inattention blindness", when your brain can't see what's right in front of you. "Before the laws came into effect California had not done a scientific study as to the number of people who were actually using their cell phones. The Police departments and the CHP estimated that it was almost 10% and the national figures estimated between 10 and 13 percent," Cochran told TCV. "Last summer Office of Traffic Safety conducted a self-reporting opinion survey that asked drivers to tell us what their usage of cell phones while driving were. They reported that 14 percent of them regularly talked on a hand-held cell phone," he said.

Studies have shown little difference between the risk associated with hand-held and hands-free devices. It's not where your hands are. It's where your head is. Texting while driving can also delay a driver's reactions as much as having blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08, the same as a drunk driver.

Currently it is legal to use a speaker phone. However, it can't just be your cell phone on speaker that you are still holding in your hand. It has to be either a speaker phone built into your car or your cell phone has to be physically out of your hand. California law allows a driver to use a wireless telephone without a hands free device to make emergency calls to a law enforcement agency, a medical provider, the fire department or other emergency services agencies. In the case of an emergency, drivers should pull over before making a call, if the situation safely permits. Using one of the many apps available, such as IZUP or OTTER, to hold your messages is a good option for focused driving. "Starting this month with the latest campaign we hope to lessen the number of crashes as much as possible," said Cochran.

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