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BTW, I've got to drive now -- TTUL

I have also been a driving moron. More than once. Several times. Quite often, in fact.

December 29, 2009|Hector Tobar
  • Talking on a cellphone while driving means "you're looking out at the road, but you're not really seeing it," an expert says.
Talking on a cellphone while driving means "you're looking… (Don Bartletti/Los Angeles…)

I grew up thinking that California drivers were the best in the world.

We may not have been very polite, especially in heavy traffic. But back in the glory days we California natives were savvy drivers. We were practically born behind a steering wheel, so it came easy to us.

I learned the ins and outs of "defensive driving" before I learned my multiplication tables. My classroom was the back seat of a Volkswagen and my teacher was my father, who imparted instruction as he drove up and down the Hollywood Freeway.

"If you're in the other person's blind spot, you're just asking for trouble," he'd say, and I'd nod my 6-year-old head and listen and watch.

I took driver's ed in high school, got my license and joined the flow of traffic in a 1975 Beetle with a manual transmission. I was pretty good. So was almost everybody else.

When I traveled the world as a foreign correspondent, it was with a California driver's license proudly in my wallet. I'd tell people: "We Californians are to driving what Brazilians are to soccer, Russians to ballet, the French to haute cuisine. We're naturals."

Then I returned to L.A. in 2008 and all that had gone out the window. All around me people were driving with their eyes off the road while their fingers punched messages into tiny keyboards. We had allowed our sharp driving minds to be dulled by people talking into our ears.

"Everyone thinks, 'It's OK for me to do it, because I really know what I'm doing,' " said Steven Bloch, a senior researcher for the Automobile Club of Southern California who's studied the social phenomenon of cellphone texting and driving.

Things have actually gotten a lot better in the last year thanks to a couple of new laws, Bloch told me.

The law that bans texting while driving turns a year old this week. The one that bans holding a cellphone while you drive turns 2 in July.

Still, on most days, it feels as if a haze of stupidity has fallen over the city.

There was that guy I saw writing a missive on his "smart phone" (what a misnomer that is) while merging onto the 210 Freeway. Last week, I almost crashed into a woman who rolled her SUV out of a gas station directly into my path in Highland Park -- the desperate honking of my horn didn't cause her to drop her call.

Of course, in the interest of full disclosure, I should add this: I have also been a driving moron. More than once. Several times. Quite often, in fact.

I was on the sinuous Pasadena Freeway a few months ago when I had the kind of epiphany an alcoholic has when he realizes he's got to stop drinking.

The little red light was flashing on my BlackBerry, indicating a new message. I just had to open it, even if I was going 55 mph.

"Dear Sir or Madam," the e-mail began. "I am Mr. Liu from Baoying Yongxin Glass Arts Factory, we are specialized in making glass crafts. . . ." It was spam, from Yangzhou, China, and I had just risked life and limb to read it.

Texting is one of the most dangerous things a sober driver can do. A recent study by Virginia Tech researchers found texting increases your chances of being in a crash by 23 times. It's a near-suicidal act when performed at freeway speeds.

Driving researchers call texting the "perfect storm" of driving distraction. "It's just about the only activity that takes your eyes and your mind off the road, and your hands off the wheel," Bloch told me.

Even just talking on a phone while driving can have a similar effect. "We call it inattention blindness," Bloch said. "You're looking out at the road, but you're not really seeing it."

I called the Auto Club and Bloch to see how California drivers are doing now that we've got laws on the books to keep our eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel.

Bloch, a sociologist, has been studying cellphones and driving for more than a decade. Over the past couple of years he and his team of Auto Club researchers have peered inside about 17,000 randomly selected cars at seven Orange County sites to monitor driving habits.

Before the first cellphone law took effect in July 2008 -- the one mandating use of "hands-free" phones -- the use of electronic devices by drivers was out of control, Bloch told me. "People just couldn't sit still."

If you live in Orange County and don't use a cellphone while driving, you may have seen Bloch standing on a sidewalk or on the edge of a freeway on-ramp, holding a clipboard and making check marks on a form.

A lot of drivers glare at him suspiciously or wave as they speed past, Bloch said. "But not one person talking on a cellphone has ever noticed me," Bloch said. "They're completely oblivious to my existence."

The good news from the Auto Club survey is that both cellphone use and texting appear to be down significantly.

Before any of the new laws went into effect, 1 in 7 drivers was using an electronic device, Bloch said. In the most recent Auto Club survey, only 1 in 19 drivers was doing so.

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