Hands-free green light
Despite national attempts to end distracted driving, a new California law keeps us connected
By Jennifer Hadley 12/20/2012
Remember a few years ago, when the texting-while-driving ban was all the rage? Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood launched a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of distracted driving. Calling a rising death toll and increasing number of accidents in which distracted driving was to blame an epidemic, LaHood embarked on an admirable mission to make us all a little safer.
Summits were held and Oprah even asked us to sign her No Phone Zone Pledge, in which we vowed we would never use the phone while driving. Virtually everyone seemed in agreement that using a cell phone while driving was dangerous. After all, studies from such renowned institutions as Carnegie Mellon showed that driving while using a cell phone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent.
Similarly, National Safety Council President and CEO Janet Froetscher identified cell phone use during driving as one of America’s most urgent traffic safety issues, and in January 2009, the NSC became the first national organization to call for a total ban on cell phone use while driving.
At the time, Froetscher said, “Our nation has reached a point where we estimate more than 100 million people are engaging in this dangerous behavior daily. Hands-free devices do not make cell phones any safer. Several studies indicate that the principle risk is the cognitive distraction. Studies also show that driving while talking on a cell phone is extremely dangerous and puts drivers at a four times greater crash risk.”
That’s so 2009. It’s nearly 2013! And in California at least, we can’t be bothered with little things like statistics or facts, which clearly demonstrate that any time we are not focusing on the road, we are putting ourselves, our passengers and everyone on the road with us at great risk. Nope, our personal convenience supersedes our fellow man’s personal safety, and thanks to Assemblyman Jeff Miller (R-Corona) and his “Freedom to Communicate” bill, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into effect last summer, we will once again be free to text to our heart’s content once the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s morning.
You’ll first need to understand the language of Assembly Bill 1536 and, more importantly, own the equipment necessary to be able to text legally. The bill states that drivers may now listen to and send text messages while driving, provided we are utilizing “an electronic wireless communications device that is specifically designed and configured to allow voice-operated and hands-free operation.”
From May 2010 to May 2012, tobacco companies contributed more than $14,000 to Miller’s campaign. Gambling interests gave more than $13,000 in that same period, and telecom services and equipment businesses contributed $10,400, according to maplight.org, which tracks contributors to local, state and national politicians.
For those with iPhones, you’re no doubt thinking that Siri is going to come in mighty handy. You’ll just say “Siri, text John.” Siri, your beloved virtual assistant, will confirm that the phone will text John. You dictate the text and tell Siri to send the message. Ta-da! Victory! And completely legal, right?
Not exactly, because reaching down to activate the voice app is still considered illegal. To take advantage of the new “Freedom to Communicate” bill you must use a separate, voice-activated device that is connected to the phone — such as a headset or Bluetooth device or an in-car program. Make no mistake, the act of taking your eyes off the road and using your hand to activate any app on your phone is still illegal and just cause for a CHP officer to pull you over.
But that’s really nothing new, as the CHP currently reserves the right to pull you over for any action you take in your vehicle that can be construed as distracting you from driving.
In a sense, this law seems to be of absolutely no consequence, other than perhaps serving as a slight jab to LaHood in a “we’ll play by your rules, but we’re doing our best to find a loophole, because we absolutely must be on our phones whenever we deem it necessary” kind of way.
So consider yourself warned, readers. Although the new law is bound to get a bunch of attention when it goes into effect in a few weeks, AB1536 really doesn’t change things much, unless you have a completely voice activated cell phone or a Bluetooth system in your car.
Contact Jennifer Hadley at email@example.com