State senator says ban on cell phone conversations while driving will be 'tough sell'

Distracted-drivers conference supports anti-texting laws, but hands-free devices still OK

A Palo Alto state senator just back from a national conference on distracted driving reports widespread support for a ban on behind-the-wheel text messages, but less emphasis on those who talk on the phone while driving.

"I think it's clear that cell phone safety is going to be a tougher sell than efforts to curb texting," State Sen. Joe Simitian D-Palo Alto) said, shortly after returning from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's summit on distracted driving.

Simitian authored the state laws that prohibit Californians from texting while behind the wheel, or conducting a phone conversation without a hands-free device, such as a Bluetooth headset. He was one of 200 transportation experts, safety advocates, law enforcement officials, researchers and legislators from across the country that participated in the event in Washington, D.C.

After two days of panels and discussions, Simitian said he was encouraged to see "California has really taken the lead on these issues."

He praised the level of engagement among all the participants, but said he "was a little bit concerned, frankly, that cell phone issues were given short shrift."

Texting is "so clearly and undeniably dangerous," he said. "Your eyes are off the road, your hands are off the wheel and your mind is off the driving." One British study cited at the summit found that drivers thumbing messages into their phones are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash.

Simitian went to Washington with some of the first data available on fatality rates since California's hands-free law took effect July 1, 2008. In the six-month period following the ban, fatalities dropped by 20 percent compared with the same months in the past three to five years, he said, and the state saw 6,000 to 7,000 fewer collisions each month.

Since not enough data yet exists to concretely link these numbers to the hands-free law, Simitian said laws implementing texting bans and graduated drivers licenses for younger drivers will "probably see more action."

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