Will California’s new hands-free device ban reduce distracted driving?

Over the last decade, distracted driving has grown into an epidemic that claims thousands of lives per year and leaves even more people with serious injuries. The California Office of Traffic Safety estimates that, locally, four out of five car crashes now involve some form of driver inattention. To address this sizable threat, state lawmakers have recently expanded California's distracted driving laws to ban all uses of handheld wireless communication devices.

The law and its limitations

KTLA News states that California's previous law only prohibited drivers from writing, reading or sending text-based communications. This failed to address a number of potential distractions, from taking selfies to playing games. The new law, which became effective on January 1, states that drivers may only use mobile device features that are activated with a single tap or swipe. Also, they must have the device mounted to the vehicle in a way that does not obstruct their vision.

While proponents hope that this law will prevent distracted driving accidents, it is important to note its potential limitations. The law does not ban motorists from utilizing technology that has been installed in the vehicle, which has potential to distract a driver manually, visually and mentally. Furthermore, research suggests that hands-free devices still demand too much mental attention, putting drivers at risk for accidents.

The dangers of cognitive distraction

A literature review from the National Safety Council, which considered over 30 studies of distracted driving, reveals that hands-free devices do not offer significant safety benefits over handheld devices. The mental distraction that arises from interacting with one of these devices may put drivers at risk for catastrophic or fatal accidents by causing all of the following performance issues:

  • Tendency to overlook visual cues and ignore as much as half of the driving environment
  • Slow response times that, in one study, were worse than those of legally drunk drivers
  • Reduced activity in areas of the brain that handle navigation and other skills needed during driving

In-vehicle systems may be just as dangerous as the handheld devices that the new ban targets, according to research from the University of Utah and the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety. One study found that the complexity of these systems, combined with their tendency to make errors, distracts drivers more than using a handheld device. Worsening the risk, these systems are largely unregulated, and drivers may incorrectly assume that their presence in a vehicle indicates their safety.

Potential remedies for victims

Given all of these issues, distracted driving may remain a prevalent cause of accidents in California even after the new law becomes effective. Anyone who suffers harm in a car crash involving an inattentive or otherwise negligent driver should consider consulting with an attorney about options for seeking recourse.