SAN FRANCISCO—There are two types of drivers who use their cellphones behind the wheel: Distracted and really distracted. Studies show, in fact, that people who talk on the phone or text message while driving are actually as impaired as drunk drivers, braking almost 20 percent slower than other motorists.
Still, a recent AAA study found that nearly half of 16- and 17-year-olds say they text message while driving, and 20 percent of drivers overall admit to occasionally keeping one eye on their keyboards while the other is on the road.
This, more and more lawmakers say, has got to stop. And on Thursday, California will join an increasing number of states that have decided in the last two years to put their foot down and insist that drivers do the same with their cellphones.
Starting January 1, drivers here will be prohibited from text messaging from behind the wheel, making California the seventh state to say "CYA" (yes, it means what it sounds like) to texting while driving. Washington became the first state to ban the practice last year, and it was quickly followed by Alaska, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota, and New Jersey.
The new regulation in California will accompany a law that went into effect this summer that made it illegal to drive while talking on a cellphone without a hands-free device—but unintentionally overlooked the rising popularity of texting. Yet another California law, passed last year, prohibits drivers under age 18 from using a cellphone at all while they are behind the wheel.
More than a dozen other states are considering similar laws, which tend to face little political opposition. A Harris Interactive poll conducted last year found that 9 in 10 adults think text messaging while driving is "distracting, dangerous, and should be outlawed."
"Texting while driving is so obviously unsafe that it's hard to imagine that anyone would attempt it," Joe Simitian, the California state senator who authored both the cell phone and text-messaging bills, told reporters this week. "But everyday observation as well as statistical information from around the state and nation suggest otherwise."
Cellphone driving laws may seem like political no-brainers, but they have proved as difficult to enforce as they have been easy to pass. Apart from a brief honeymoon period immediately after the California hands-free law went into effect this summer, the California Highway Patrol has cited 42,000 drivers in the last six months for continuing to drive with their cellphones glued to their ears.
While national numbers on fatalities caused by cellphone users have proved difficult to collect, according to some estimates, as many as 6 percent of all car accidents—and more than 2,000 auto fatalities a year—are caused by drivers distracted by their cellphones.
Both text messaging and nonhands-free chatting while driving will now come with the same fine in California: About $76 for a first offense and $175 for each subsequent offense, counting state and local fees.
For a state-by-state breakdown of cellphone and text messaging rules and regulations, see the Governors Highway Safety Association website.