By Jed Kolko, research fellow, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the
Sacramento Bee on May 31, 2008
The new state law requiring drivers to use hands-free technology when talking on the phone is an easy target for critics. After July 1, when the law takes effect, we'll still be able to take calls as we barrel down the freeway. The odds of getting pulled over are low and the penalty is small: $20 for first-time offenders and no points against your driving record. And how seriously can you take a law that forbids drivers from holding a phone while talking but allows drivers to hold a phone while dialing or texting?
Here's why you should: California's hands-free law should save 300 lives a year, based on the drop in fatalities in other states that passed similar laws. The 300 lives saved would be about a 7 percent decline in the more than 4,000 deaths on California's roads every year.
There's little question that using mobile phones while driving makes our roadways more dangerous. But research released by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that hands-free laws reverse some of the dangerous effects of using mobile phones.
The states with hands-free laws – New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and the District of Columbia – saw traffic fatalities in bad weather or other poor driving conditions drop by 30 percent to 60 percent after the laws took effect. These effects aren't temporary: Fatalities in New York, the first state to have a hands-free law, continued to fall even two or three years after the law took effect.
How is that possible when other studies show that using hands-free mobile phones and using hand-held mobile phones are equally risky while driving? Most of these studies are based on lab simulations or on vehicles outfitted with cameras and sensors. In other words, they measured the level of distraction people experience while talking on the phone. What they didn't measure is the behavior of people who, perhaps aware of the risks, used their mobile phones less often or decided not to make that call at all – which could turn out to be how the law saves lives.
Laws change behavior in complicated and sometimes profound ways. Sure, some people will calculate the (low) likelihood and the (low) cost of getting caught and will keep on talking while holding a phone. Others will abide by the letter of the law, talking just as often but with their headsets on. But there will also be people who decide that hands-free technologies are too much trouble to use and will talk less while driving. Others might think twice before making or taking a call when road conditions are poor. The law is, in itself, a form of public education.
In fact, the effect of having this law on the public's consciousness will be more important than its enforcement for saving lives. Mobile phones are most dangerous, and hands-free laws most beneficial, when driving conditions are poor. Unfortunately, strong enforcement of the hands-free law is least likely when it might help most. In stormy weather, traffic officers have more collisions to deal with, leaving less time for discretionary enforcement of violations.
To compensate for the difficulty of enforcement, the state of California could help with a big public awareness campaign. But in the middle of a state budget crisis, traffic agencies aren't about to spend big bucks on prime-time television ads telling people to put on a headset.
The Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Highway Patrol have a Q&A page about the hands-free law on their Web sites, but that's about it for official public education. The real shame about the law is not that enforcement is difficult or that the penalties are light, but that it did not mandate a public education campaign. Still, neither did New York, which has had a law in effect since 2001, longer than any other state, and it saw fatalities drop dramatically when driving conditions are bad.
Ultimately, the number of lives saved will depend on whether we change our behavior beyond what the law forces us to do. Some people will try to get away with whatever they can, regardless of the risk to the rest of us. But most, with any luck, will use the law as a reminder to think before we talk, even with a hands-free device. We might even decide to just to hang up and drive.