March 06, 2012, 12:02 PM — It turns out when you reduce the number of drivers talking on handheld cellphones, you reduce traffic fatalities and injuries.
That's the shocking conclusion of a study by the University of California at Berkeley's Safe Transportation Research and Education Center, which determined that a state law enacted in July 2008 that bans drivers using handheld cellphones has saved lives in the Golden State.
As the Associated Press reports, the study "found that overall traffic deaths dropped 22 percent, while deaths blamed on drivers using hand-held cellphones were down 47 percent. Deaths among drivers who use hands-free phones dropped at a similar rate."
The study reviewed traffic deaths and injuries for two-year periods before and after the ban took effect. It found the number of drivers killed while using a handheld phone dropped to 53 in the two years after the ban from 100 in the two years prior. Injuries fell by more than 50% to 7,720 from 3,862.
Now, we can argue that drivers continue to use handheld phones in states where they've been banned (and that's absolutely true), so that it's impossible to conclude cause and effect here.
But as the AP writes, an "unrelated survey commissioned by the state last summer found 40 percent of drivers say they talk less while driving since the ban took effect, even if they have a legal hands-free device."
Again, you can poke holes in surveys that rely on self-reporting of behavior related to laws, but the state survey echoes the findings in 2010 of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which determined that in states with cellphone bans on the books, 44% of drivers say they comply with the law, versus 30% of drivers in states without handheld phone laws who say they don't use handheld cellphones even if they're allowed to.
Of course, the numbers above show that most drivers -- even in states where there's a ban -- still will use their handheld phones. California's Department of Motor Vehicles reports more than 460,000 convictions in 2011 for driving while using a handheld phone.
Convicted violators in California currently face a $20 base fine for a first offense, though with court-related and other fees that amount can approach $200.
It's amazing to me that anyone seriously disputes the notion that piloting vehicles weighing 3,000 pounds or more at high speeds while talking on cellphones, texting, tweeting and Facebooking doesn't create a potentially deadly distraction for the driver. Or that somehow our "freedoms" outweigh the obvious danger to the public of distracted driving, which existed before the advent of handheld electronic devices but is now clearly at an all-time high.
But don't take my word for it. Rather, listen to Taylor Sauer, a college student who, while driving in Idaho on January 14, posted on her Facebook wall, "I can't discuss this matter now.