Is it time for California to toughen its fine for drivers who talk on hand-held cell phones?
First, some provocative news came out of Washington, D.C. last week about cell phone laws:
A study reported by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety calls into question whether state bans on hand-held cell phone use actually are leading to fewer crashes.
The insurance institute compared crash claims filed with insurance companies a number of months before and after cell-phone bans were enacted in California, New York, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut.
They compared that data to what was happening in nearby states that didn't have cell phone bans for drivers.
Insurance claims rates in California were compared with claims rates for the same time period in Arizona, Nevada and Oregon.
The crash claim patterns in all those states, researchers found, were the same.
In other words, crash claims didn't drop any more in California during the year after our July 2008 ban went into effect than they did in nearby states that don't have bans.
That surprised institute researchers. They say they believe it's dangerous to drive and talk on a hand-held cell phone.
"We aren't saying cell phone use is not a crash risk," institute president Adrian Lund said. "We've all been behind drivers who are weaving around and we discover they are on their cell phone."
Lund said the lesson he takes from his institute's study is that tackling distracted driving "isn't going to be as easy as just passing a law."
He puts more hope in new vehicle technology -- such as devices that warn drivers they are veering out of their lane or coming too close to the car ahead.
State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, author of the state's landmark laws on hand-held cell phones and texting, says he's skeptical about the institute's study.
Simitian says it's a narrow review, and pointed out institute officials admit their data are not definitive.
"There isn't a study in the world that says you are safer clutching a foreign object to your ear than you are with both hands on the wheel," Simitian said.
He points to another national study, done a few years ago, that suggested such laws have had helped reduce crashes.
In fact, Simitian's gut tells him there is more to be done to get drivers off their phones.
He holds an annual contest for constitutents called "There Oughta Be a Law." This year, he's heard from a lot of people saying they still see too many drivers talking on hand-held cell phones.
The current fine is too light, they say.
February is bill-introduction month in the Legislature. Stay tuned, Simitian says.
Bizjak covers transportation for The Sacramento Bee and is the author of the Back-seat Driver column. E-mail email@example.com