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Friday, September 12, 2008

Cell Phone Laws Hands-Free Restriction--Are people Complying?

Back at the end of June the public was bombarded with news stories on television and in the newspaper that a new law was coming. Drivers would be fined if they are caught using a phone without some sort of hands-free device while driving. The first offense carries with it a $20 and that increases to $50 for subsequent violations.

On the other hand, despite being a clear public safety risk the DMV would not assign a point on people's driving record.

Despite an article last week in the Davis Enterprise which stated that most people are now following the law, I have not seen much evidence of that. Every time I am driving around town, I see a sizable number of people talking on the phone as though no law existed. Perhaps this suggests that people are now aware of the law and stash their phone safely away when they see a police vehicle.

I was curious as to whether or not the Davis Police were issuing citations for the offense.

So in early August, I made a public records request to the police department and was told that there were 42 citations issued in the month of July for violation of the hands-free cell phone restriction.

Of course, there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. Statistics do not mean much without context and so there was little way to evaluate what 42 meant. Is that a high a number? Or a low number?

I surmised that despite the CHP warning in late June that there would be no grace period, perhaps on the street, officers might be giving warning rather than tickets in the first month.

So I waited a month and made the same records request for August and discovered that the number fell from 42 to 27.

So either people were complying more or the police were issuing fewer citations.

My research on this included a few conversations with some in law enforcement, the gist I came with is that this is not a priority for law enforcement in Davis. There is no really assigned traffic officers anyway other than the motorcycle officers. The priority has been to patrol in front of the schools. So any citations would be almost incidental. Thus 69 citations in two months might actually be higher than expected.

Anecdotally, there are two confounding pieces of information. The first is the number of people I have personally observed driving while talking on their cell phones. The other is the large quantity of blue-tooths and other hands-free devices that have been purchased recently.

At the end of the day, I am still torn on the issue anyway. Studies have shown cell phone usage is comparable to drinking while driving in terms of impaired reaction time. TV shows have shown people driving while talking on the phone cannot react to road obstacles nearly as fast as those who have full attention. On the other hand, even holding a conversation hands-free slows that down. The safety issue is fairly clear-cut.

On the other hand, the libertarian side of me would prefer that government impose fewer such laws on the public. If someone is an actual safety risk due to them being distracted on the phone, by all means pull them over. But if someone is basically driving safely and obeying the laws, let them continue to talk on the phone.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting