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Hands off! New California cell phone law outlaws hand-held cell phone use while driving.

January 24, 2017 by Steven M. Gursten

New California cell phone law is a good start but overlooks real dangers of so-called ‘hands-free’ use; Here’s what Michigan can learn from California’s new cell phone law.

On January 1, 2017, California joined the ranks of a small group of 14 public safety-conscious states by enacting a new cell phone law that bans drivers from “holding and operating” their “hand-held” cell phones and electronic devices while driving.

Specifically, California’s cell phone law provides:

“A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while holding and operating a handheld wireless telephone or an electronic wireless device …”

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, there are only 14 states (plus D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands) that “prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving.”

It’s time for Michigan to get with the program.

The science is clear (see the distraction studies I discuss below) and they show banning cell phones while driving is a way to prevent more car accident injuries and deaths. As an auto accident attorney in Michigan, I am seeing more and more cases caused by people distracted by texting and driving or using their hand-held while driving. But we need to go one step farther. We should prohibit all Michigan drivers from holding and using their phones (or other electronic devices) while they’re driving.

Michigan’s limited bans on hand-held cell phone use while driving.

Although there’s still lots to do in terms of bringing an end to hand-held cell phone use while driving in Michigan, we’re not exactly starting from scratch.

Michigan does have a few, limited bans already in place.

For instance, under existing Michigan law, truck drivers and school bus drivers are banned from “us[ing] a hand-held mobile telephone to conduct a voice communication while operating a commercial motor vehicle or school bus …” (MCL 257.602b(3))

Similarly, under Kelsey’s Law, teen drivers are banned from “us[ing] a cellular telephone while operating a motor vehicle …” (MCL 257.602c(1))

To honor the memory of Kelsey Raffaele, whose tragic death in a 2010 cell-phone related automobile accident inspired the passage of Kelsey’s Law, our attorneys sponsor the Kelsey’s Law Scholarship: Stop Distracted Driving Contest. Click here to learn more and apply. The deadline to apply is August 31, 2017.

The distracted driving proposal that got away

Sadly, during the 2015-16 legislative session that ended December 31, 2016, Michigan missed an excellent opportunity to build on its existing laws by acting on House Bill 5867, which, unlike California’s new law, would have specifically prohibited drivers from engaging in the following distractions while driving:

  • “Conducting a search.”
  • “Viewing, taking, or transmitting an image or video.
  • “Playing games.”
  • “Performing a command or request to access an internet page.”
  • “Composing, sending, reading, viewing, accessing, browsing, transmitting, saving, or retrieving an email message, text message, instant message, or other electronic data.”

Hands-free doesn’t mean risk-free

California’s new hand-held-ban law should have laid out what I’ve written above and then stopped.

But unfortunately, it didn’t.

It goes on to nearly swallow its broad, unequivocal rule with exceptions that permit certain instances of so-called “hands-free” (or nearly “hands-free”) use, thereby offering only the illusion of – not actual – safety.

A ground-breaking cognitive-distraction study by the AAA-Foundation for Traffic Safety has shown that the “hands-free” use of phones and electronic devices while driving is no less dangerous – and possibly even more – than the hand-held use. Specifically, the study, which I discussed in my blog post, “Does ‘hands-free’ driving mean risk-free?,” cautioned the following:

  • “[H]ands-free does not mean risk-free”;
  • “The lessons learned from the current research suggest that … the impairments to driving [resulting from ‘voice-based interaction’] … may rise to the level associated with drunk driving …”; and,
  • Car makers and cell phone companies should be cautious because “a rush” to include “voice-based systems in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety.”

What about other dangerous driver distractions that are a cause of automobile accidents?

As the AAA-FTS’s cognitive distraction study shows, California’s new law does nothing to stop a driver’s hands-free use of a cell phone or electronic device.

California recognized that these other forms of distracted driving are also a significant cause of car accidents, and then they chose to ignore it. As an attorney, it could be argued that the new cell phone law seems to actually make things worse in this regard with specific carve-outs and exceptions that by law specifically set out and allow them.

California’s new law does nothing to prevent or discourage drivers from engaging in the extremely distracting behaviors that Michigan’s HB 5867 sought to prohibit – assuming that California drivers could engage in a “voice-operated,” “hands-free” manner via a manufacturer-installed device or “a single swipe or tap of the driver’s finger” on a windshield- or dashboard-mounted device.

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