Hands-free texting now allowed on California roads

There is no question that distracted driving poses a major safety risk for motorists in California and throughout the United States. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving accidents claimed more than 3,330 lives in 2011 alone.

Of all of the forms of distracted driving, texting while driving is arguably the most dangerous. Texting encompasses all three types of distraction - it takes drivers' eyes off the road, removes their hands from the wheel and diverts their attention from the task of driving. Indeed, texting while driving is so dangerous that, according to the NHTSA, it makes drivers 23 times more likely to be involved in a motor vehicle accident.

In response to these concerns, most states have banned motorists from using handheld devices to send text messages while driving. California is among this group. However, the state recently bucked the trend in a different respect when it decided to allow drivers to use hands-free devices to send and receive text messages behind the wheel.

The law, which went into effect on January 1, allows drivers to use voice-activated devices to dictate or listen to text messages. Typing or reading text messages is still prohibited. Violation of the law can result in a $20 fine on the first offense and a $50 fine for each subsequent offense.

Law may hurt safety

The law was designed to give California drivers a safer alternative to texting while driving. However, not everyone is on board with the change. The law met with some serious opposition from safety advocates, including an effort by the National Safety Council to have the law repealed before it takes effect.

Much of the concern stems from data showing that hands-free systems are not really that much safer than handheld devices. A study several years ago at the University of Utah aimed to quantify the dangers posed by drivers who use cellphones behind the wheel. It found that using a cellphone - regardless of whether it was handheld or hands-free - reduced driver's breaking time and made them more likely to cause accidents. Cognitively, the drivers were just as impaired as if they had a 0.08 blood alcohol content.

A more recent study at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute examined drivers' ability to maintain control of their vehicles while texting. While some drivers used handheld phones, others sent texts using a hands-free Bluetooth system. While those using handheld devices experienced more severe impairments, the hands-free texters also had trouble staying safe behind the wheel.

It remains to be seen what the long-term effects of California's voice-texting law will be. However, regardless of the law, it is important for all drivers to refrain from engaging in any behavior that takes their attention off the road. Only then will we start to stem the tide of distracted driving fatalities.