Tuesday, California joined the legion of states that ban talking on a cell phone while driving without a hands-free device. The new law will no doubt be a boon for Bluetooth device resellers because, from Hollywood to Silicon Valley, California does business on the phone, in the car.
The law imposes a $20 fine for the first offense, going up to $50 thereafter. Calls to 911 and calls made by long-distance truckers, tow-truck drivers and drivers of farm equipment are exempt.
California joins states like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, as well as Washington, D.C., which have had hands-free laws for several years. California's new law doesn't ban talking on the phone, just holding a phone while you talk. And it doesn't ban dialing a number -- potentially more distracting than talking -- just talking.
Boon for Headset Sales
The law went into effect Tuesday, and mobile stores were reporting huge spikes in headset sales. At AT&T's northern California stores, Bluetooth sales were up 30 percent between May and June after rising 20 percent between April and May.
Aliph, maker of the popular Jawbone headset, said sales have been rising rapidly. "We were expecting an onslaught right around this time," said company CEO Hosain Rahman. "Awareness of the legislation is making people look more at solutions."
And those solutions are wireless: NPD Group calculates that non-carrier vendors sold 2.5 million headsets since the beginning of the year, 1.7 million of which were wireless.
It's the Call, Stupid
But does using a hands-free device make drivers any more attentive to the road than using a handset? Sprint had lobbied for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto the bill, saying the law ignores "more significant causes of inattentive driving, including drowsiness, smoking, and adjusting the radio/CD player." Sprint also faulted the law for failing to distinguish between "inexperienced teen drivers, who may be easily distracted, and experienced adult drivers whose experience and maturity make them completely capable of operating an automobile safely while speaking on a wireless phone."
Based on statements like that, "It's interesting to note how vociferously the cellular companies fought the measure," said Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT. "Understandably, they didn't relish the idea of their products/services being linked by law to the prevention of traffic accidents and fatalities."
Several studies have shown that the problem is not the physical awkwardness of handling a steering wheel and a phone, but rather the inattention to driving associated with having a conversation while driving. Studies in 2001 and 2003 by David Strayer, a University of Utah psychology professor, showed that handheld and hands-free conversations were equally distracting, and that talkers suffer from "inattention blindness," where they fail to respond to road conditions because they're distracted by their conversation.
A 2005 study by Strayer found that talking while driving degrades young drivers' ability to respond to the level of elderly drivers. "If you put a 20-year-old driver behind the wheel with a cell phone, their reaction times are the same as a 70-year-old driver who is not using a cell phone. It's like instantly aging a large number of drivers," Strayer said.
And, notes King, "It's still legal in California to read, eat or apply makeup while driving. Bottom line: If you're dumb enough, you can still use your car to injure or kill yourself and others."