New CA Law Allows Hands-Free Texting: It's Getting Murky

July 17, 2012

With existing driver texting bans in 39 states, a new law passed last week by California Gov. Jerry Brown to allow hands-free texting by drivers promises to shake things up a bit.

In fact, it’s getting downright murky. The California no-texting law has been on the books for the past three years, but in signing AB 1536 into law, Gov. Brown approved an exception to the rule – in favor of improved voice-operated technology. In effect, this is the same exception that allows hands-free use of a cellphone while driving.

The bill’s author, Assemblyman Jeff Miller (R-Corona), told the San Jose Mercury News his “Freedom to Communicate” act, sponsored by the auto industry, was “aimed at families.”

Miller, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, said his bill “will allow Californians to communicate safely and responsibly while on the road.”

In California, drivers can soon text – if...

Already there’s a lot of confusion over which devices will be legal for California drivers to use come January 1, 2013, when the new law goes into effect.  

Come the New Year, drivers can still be ticketed for sending, dictating or listening to text messages while driving unless they’re using a separate, voice-activated device that is connected to the phone – such as a headset or Bluetooth device or an in-car program such as GM’s OnStar.

Even with the new law, drivers in California who get caught turning on their phone or selecting a hands-free text app while driving could see flashing lights, followed by a ticket from the California Highway Patrol.

Teen Driver - photo courtesy of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Teen Driver - photo courtesy of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

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But is it safe?

Getting 39 states on the no-texting bandwagon was tough enough. Adding more complexity to the issue by having California allow hands-free texting has some safety experts concerned. Studies have shown that distracted driving is dangerous. But what’s not yet clearly understood is whether the distraction is due to the physical act of holding and using a device and not having both hands on the wheel or the mental distraction associated with texting and phone conversations that keep the driver’s mind on something other than driving.

But this isn’t the end of the story. As new cars gain even more connectivity, all sorts of smartphone activities will be available to drivers. Does this open up the door to even more distracted driving? As Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently commented to the San Jose Mercury News, “If you make texting and Facebook-updating and tweeting a hands-free operation, do you encourage more of it? Then you’re potentially increasing the amount of time people are distracted.”

What’s down the road? Will other states begin to adopt “exceptions” to the no-texting ban similar to California’s?

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