California’s hand-held cellphone ban has decreased driver deaths, Berkeley researchers find

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A recent study from UC Berkeley researchers suggests that California’s ban on using hand-held cellphones while driving has made the state’s streets safer.

The California Office of Traffic Safety commissioned the campus Safe Transportation Research and Education Center to examine state crash records for two years before and after the ban went into effect. The study found a 22 percent decline in overall traffic deaths and a 47 percent decline in hand-held cellphone driver deaths between the two-year period before the ban was instituted — 2006 to 2008 — and the two-year period after it was instituted from 2008 to 2010, according to a memo to the office from director of the center David Ragland.

To determine the involvement of cellphones in crashes, the study used information from the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System, a police reports database maintained by the California Highway Patrol.

Effective July 1, 2008, California law banned all drivers from using hand-held cellphones, allowing those over 18 to use a “hands-free” Bluetooth device to make calls. The cost of a ticket for a first offense is at least $159, and $279 for subsequent offenses, according to a March 5 office press release outlining the study’s findings.

“(The law) has been more successful than we would have normally figured,” said Chris Cochran, spokesperson for the office. “We weren’t looking for cutting hand held use alone to have such major impacts.”

Drivers have also been voluntarily cutting down on cellphone use — a major impact, according to Cochran. A 2011 office survey reported that 40 percent of drivers choose to talk on their cellphones less as a result of the law.

“What we think has happened is people have either recognized the dangers or not wanted to get a ticket and have cut down on cellphone use,” Cochran said. “That could account for a lot of the lives who have been saved.”

According to the press release outlining the study’s findings, actual enforcement has increased as well. The California Department of Motor Vehicles recorded 460,487 hand-held cellphone convictions statewide in 2011 — up 22 percent from 361,260 convictions in 2010 and 52 percent from 301,833 in 2009.

Both the state office and the campus center have plans to carry out more studies on California traffic systems. The office has already undertaken a new observational study to measure the use of cellphones while driving, according to Cochran.

Franklin Krbechek covers research and ideas.