Why California's new cell phone law fails the logic test

SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. -- Starting tomorrow, it will be illegal in California to hold a cell phone up to your ear while driving. You'll still be able to use a headset -- or even text message. Here's why the law fails the logic test, and may increase highway accidents instead of reducing them.

Californians probably spend more time in their cars than most Americans. We drive everywhere. Traffic is horrible in L.A. and the San Francisco Bay Area. And everyone's obsessed with their cell phones. Traffic jams are the Great Equalizer in California, affecting rich and poor alike.

Politicians are well aware that there's a huge number of very powerful Californians who might pull major support from California politicians if they were to actually ban the use of cell phones while driving. Think Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

At the same time, California also has plenty of voters who believe strongly that cell phones cause car accidents.

Politicians face political pressure for the government to allow the use of cell phones in cars. And they've got political pressure on the other side pushing back and calling for a ban. What's a Governor and State Legislature to do?

Their solution is as useless as it is shameless, and may actually contribute to highway deaths.

Look, either taking one hand off the wheel to hold something increases the risk of driving accidents or it doesn't.

If it does, then taking one hand off the wheel or holding anything in the car should be banned. That would include cell phones, coffee, or anything else one might hold while driving. If two hands on the wheel are safer than one, then lawmakers should pass a law saying that you've got to keep two hands on the wheel.

If taking one hand off the wheel and holding something does not increase the chance of accidents, then it shouldn't be banned -- not cell phones, coffee or anything else.

Singling out cell phones as the one object that causes accidents as the result of taking one hand off the wheel is blatantly absurd.

If, on the other hand, the use of cell phones -- making and receiving calls -- distracts drivers in an unsafe way -- a more supportable assertion -- then it should be illegal to use a cell phone while driving, regardless of whether or not one uses a headset or whether Hollywood moguls or Silicon Valley tycoons contributed to your campaign.

Meanwhile, I've got a feeling that the ban may actually increase accidents, statistically speaking, because now drivers have yet another device to manage.

Worse, the law doesn't ban text messaging while driving for people over 18 (people under 18 won't be able to use a phone while driving for anything) -- at least until January 1. After that, people might still text message so they can communicate stealthily while holding their phone out of sight. It would be difficult for police to prove a driver was text messaging, and not just dialing the phone (which will remain legal). So people who don't have a headset handy now have a strong incentive to text instead of talk while driving, which is far more dangerous. People in their late teens and early 20s are at risk, because they're far less likely to own or use headsets, and far more likely to use text messaging as an alternative. 

The politically inconvenient truth is that bad drivers cause accidents, not cell phones.

If you can fog a mirror, you can get a driver's license in California. Instead of raising standards for getting and keeping a license, it's just easier for the state government to pass at best useless or at worse dangerous laws that do nothing except pad the resumes of those seeking further office. 

Lawmakers and the Governor wanted to go through the motions of doing something -- anything -- about those bad cell phone people. They needed a law -- any law -- that banned something relating to cell phones and driving. So they ignored overwhelming research that shows distractions -- not one-handed driving --contribute to accidents.

This is a politically motivated, inept and dangerous law, and should be repealed immediately.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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