New "Hands Free" Law: Will It Have the Intended Effect?

As you have likely heard, on July 1, two new laws affecting your right to use a cell phone or other mobile device while driving went into effect (Cal. Veh.Code __ 23123 and 23124). Essentially, Section 23123 says that persons 18 and over cannot use a hand-held wireless telephone device while driving. Section 23124 says that persons under 18 cannot use any wireless telephone device (even if hands-free) or any "mobile service device" while driving. "Mobile service devices" are cell phones, pagers, laptops, and text messengers.

Presumably, the intent behind the new laws is to increase driver awareness and safety by decreasing driver distractions. The question is: Will the new laws make our roads safer?

At the outset, it is important to note this distinction: minor drivers (under 18) cannot use any device, while adult drivers (18+) can still use every device, except a handheld telephone. Therefore, the law certainly has "bite" for the minor drivers they can't use any of their wireless devices. One can imagine that new, young drivers will be more attentive if they are not using these devices while driving.

However, for adult drivers, it appears the law only prohibits one rather innocuous act: holding a cell phone while listening and talking. Arguably, this law does not prohibit rummaging through your purse or pockets looking for the phone, it does not prohibit turning the phone on or reading the screen, it does not prohibit scrolling through your address book or dialing a number, it does not prohibit fumbling to find a secure place to put the phone while you use the speaker-phone function and it does not prohibit making phone calls. Subject to different interpretations by the police departments and courts, it appears the law only prohibits carrying on a conversation while actually holding the phone or putting it up to your ear!

In fact, for adult drivers, the law seems to have actually added several potentially distracting steps to the process. Now, in addition to all the steps typically taken in making a phone call, adult drivers must also find their particular hands-free device, reach for it, set it up, ensure that it is charged, powered on and sync'ed with the cellular phone, speak though it, and then potentially put it away (if it's not stationary). And there are still no restrictions on an adult driver using any mobile service device (pager, laptop, text messenger, etc.) while driving. Of course, as has always been true, if an officer feels a driver is overly distracted for any reason, including using a mobile device, the driver can be pulled over and cited accordingly.

Although we won't know the law's impact for a while, our guess is that the law will make our roads safer from drivers under 18, but possibly less safe from drivers 18 and older. We shall see!