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Drivers still texting despite California ban, Auto Club survey finds

The rate dropped off after the law was enacted in 2009, but has since risen to nearly pre-ban levels because enforcement is more difficult than the prohibition on using handheld cellphones.

April 29, 2010|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times

A California law banning texting behind the wheel has not kept drivers from doing it, according to a new survey by the Automobile Club of Southern California.

The rates of texting while driving dropped off after the ban began in January 2009, but have since risen to nearly pre-ban levels, calling into question the effectiveness of anti-texting laws and police enforcement, said Steven Bloch, an Auto Club researcher.

"People are becoming aware that there isn't much enforcement," Bloch said. "The punishments need to change."

The stakes could not be higher, road safety advocates say. In 2008, nearly 6,000 people died in crashes caused by distracted drivers — many of whom were texting, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Toll Dunaway, 32, was driving in Hollywood when the car behind him smashed into his truck. When he went to check on the driver, he found her sitting in her totaled car, holding her cellphone.

"I'm so sorry, I was texting," Dunaway said she told him.

Dunaway admits that he, too, has texted while driving, even though he knows it's dangerous.

"You think you've got it under control," he said.

Dunaway said people will change their habits only if police step up enforcement.

But catching drivers who are texting is tricky. It's tougher to enforce than the law banning the use of handheld cellphones, Bloch said, because drivers who are texting often keep their phones hidden in their laps.

Although the California Highway Patrol has issued about 11,600 hand-held cellphone citations each month over the last year, it has issued an average of only 150 citations per month for texting.

The Auto Club surveys, which sampled 4,000 vehicles in Orange County, found that before the ban on texting, 1.4% of motorists were observed texting at any given time. That figure dropped to 0.5% a few months after the ban took effect.

But the latest survey, conducted in late March and early April, found the rate had increased to 1.1%.

The rise comes as courts dole out increasingly harsh punishments for those who cause crashes because of texting — this month a Costa Mesa man was sentenced to four years in prison for killing a pedestrian while texting and driving — and despite several nationwide campaigns to raise awareness about the dangers of the practice.

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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