California has seen a significant reduction in traffic deaths since a 2008 state law banned hand-held cell phone use, according to study results released by the state Office of Traffic Safety (OTS).

Based on an analysis of state crash records before and after the ban went into effect, the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center (SafeTREC) at UC-Berkeley found that vehicle accident fatalities decreased by 22% while deaths caused by drivers using hand-held cell phones fell 47%. Similar results were shown for hands-free cell phone use as well as injuries in both categories.

“These results suggest that the law banning hand-held cell phone use while driving had a positive impact on reducing traffic fatalities and injuries,” said Dr. David Ragland, director of SafeTREC.

Contributing to the decline in cell phone-related deaths and injuries is an overall drop in cell phone usage while driving. A Statewide Intercept Opinion Survey commissioned with federal funds by OTS last summer showed 40% of California drivers reported they talk less (with handheld and hands-free devices) since enactment of the ban.

February 2010, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reported similar results from their telephone survey. It found that 44% of drivers in states with bans reported they don't use phones (hand-held or hands-free) when driving, compared with 30% in states without such laws. Further, IIHS observational research found that bans on hand-held phoning while driving can have large and long-term effects on curbing hand-held cell phone use.

California drivers see cell phone usage while driving as a significant traffic safety threat, the OTS statewide opinion survey reported. Of those respondents, 62%  stated that texting and talking are the biggest safety concerns on California roadways while 84% claimed cell phone conversations or texting while driving constitute the most serious distractions while driving.

Enforcement of cell phone laws may also play a role in the accident reduction. California Department of Motor Vehicles records show that, statewide in 2011, there were 460,487 hand-held cell phone convictions — up 22% from 361,260 convictions in 2010 and 52% from 301,833 in 2009. The cost of a ticket for a first offense is at least $159 and that rises to $279 for subsequent offenses.

“Highly visible and publicized enforcement, along with the cooperation of the motoring public to reduce distractions behind the wheel, has played a significant role in the reduction in collisions,” said California Highway Patrol (CHP) Commissioner Joe Farrow. “In addition, there are many educational programs developed by CHP and our allied agencies as well as by non-profit organizations, such as Impact Teen Drivers, that have made sustained efforts in reducing distracted driving.’’

The distracted-driving section of the California Strategic Highway Safety Plan (SHSP) has developed the state’s “It’s Not Worth It!” public awareness campaign, which employs TV and radio commercials, billboards, internet, social media and other outreach efforts.

In addition, millions of Californians see the “Handheld Cell Ticket - $159 – It’s Not Worth It” message on more than 625 permanent changeable message signs for several days throughout the year. The SHSP’s distracted driving section is currently formulating plans to increase the data and research available to more accurately understand and combat the problem.

“While we are thrilled to see that the hand-held ban in California has worked to reduce distracted-driving crashes and overall cell phone use, there are still far too many drivers talking and texting while driving,” said Christopher J. Murphy, director of  the California Office of Traffic Safety.

In April 2011, the Office of Traffic Safety using federal funds conducted the nation’s first statewide cell-phone observational survey. It showed that 9% of drivers were talking or texting while driving, representing hundreds of thousands of drivers at any given time. What’s more, research has shown that drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves.