As elected leaders, transportation officials, and safety advocates converge in Washington DC today for the second annual distracted driving summit, the level of impact existing anti-distraction laws have had will be front and center. In California, the numbers are less-than-encouraging. Since the state’s cell phone ban went into effect in January 2009, the number of distracted drivers has actually increased, to 2.7 percent of drivers at any given time, according to the Automotive Club of Southern California.
My hunch is that this paradox is more the result of ever-increasing technology and a lack of awareness about cell phone laws than a deliberate attempt to buck state laws against cell phone use behind the wheel. After all, the majority of Californians likely aren’t so rebellious to break the law just for the hell of it. In this case, fear is the best remedy; in order for the California legislature to boost adherence to the distracted driving ban, it must pass stronger laws and crack down more forcefully.
“Stronger penalties, more driver awareness and education, and heightened enforcement are needed to significantly reduce one of the most dangerous activities a driver can do while on the road,” said the Auto Club’s Government Affairs Manager Steve Finnegan. “The rise in texting indicates that the growth of texting overall has outpaced current enforcement efforts and overcome the current law, which should be strengthened to enhance safety.”
One bill that would have increased the fines for first-time and repeating offenders, and added a point to the dangerous driver’s record, was recently defeated by the California legislature. State Senator Joe Simitian, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, has said that distracted driving won’t go away over night. Though “it will take time, education, and enforcement,” Simitian says distracted driving will eventually be considered as taboo as driving drunk or ignoring seat belts.
Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has been a major force in the fight against distracted driving, and today’s second annual summit on the subject will aim to inspire action on the local and national levels. Noting the 6,000 deaths and nearly 500,000 injuries caused by distracted driving each year, LaHood highlighted the central tragedy on his blog yesterday. “Once you’ve met the victims and the loved ones left behind by this dangerous behavior, it gets even worse. Because then you understand that we are not talking about numbers, but about lives being broken and people being killed in crashes that are 100% preventable.”
Photo credit: poka0059