California curbs drivers’ cell phone use, but crashes remain steady

By Logan Dredske
Beginning in January of 2017 a California law prohibited drivers from holding their phone in their hands for any reason. Analysis by California’s Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) found that in 2017 four percent of drivers were picking up and using their phones, compared to the eight percent that were doing so in 2016.
While the OTS analysis shows a decrease in phone usage while driving, the effects have not necessarily translated into decreases in traffic accidents. California Highway Patrol data showed the number of distraction-related crashes involving phones were only slightly down from 1,968 in 2016 to 1,894 in 2017. The number of fatal crashes involving drivers using phones in the past two years was 18 in both 2016 and 2017. The number of injury-crashes involving phone use by drivers was up from 849 in 2016 to 877 in 2017.
Phones certainly do cause distractions for drivers, but they do not necessarily explain crash rates. One study from Carnegie Mellon University and the London School of Economics and Political Science affirmed this. “Using a cellphone while driving may be distracting, but it does not lead to higher crash risk in the setting we examined,” said Saurabh Bhargava, who led the study.
Even if that’s not true, the link has been hard to pin down with data, as noted by a previous SSTI post. For comparison, fatality rates are strongly related to the overall amount that people drive.
The California law prohibits holding the phone while driving; however, another factor in the use of phones while driving is hand-held v. hands-free. Does talking on a phone using hands-free technology create less of a distraction than talking using a hand-held device? Research has suggested that talking on the phone hands-free can be just as distracting as when done with a hand-held device.
Logan Dredske is a Project Assistant at SSTI.