California drivers ignoring ban on texting while driving

California motorists appear to be increasing ignoring the 15-month-old ban on texting while driving, the Automobile Club of Southern California reported today.

An Auto Club safety researcher said "the results are disappointing" and show that the initial decrease in texting behind the wheel, measured after ban was first implemented, has nearly disappeared.

"The fact that we're seeing a statistically significant rise in texting despite the state ban indicates that additional efforts are needed to help deal with the problem," said Steven Bloch, the organization's senior researcher.

"It's just over a year after California's texting ban was implemented, and texting is rising toward the level it was before the law," Bloch said.

Before the texting law went into effect in January 2009, three Auto Club surveys conducted in 2008 consistently showed that about 1.4 percent of motorists were texting, Bloch said. Surveys conducted in May and July of 2009 showed that texting had dropped about 70 percent, to about 0.5 percent.

But the latest month-long survey, which was just completed, showed that about 1.1 percent of California motorists were actively texting while driving.

The Auto Club supports a proposed law that would increase the texting fine to $100, plus penalty assessments. The current law calls for $20 for a first offense and $50 for subsequent offenses.

Senate Bill 1475 would also impose one point on a motorist's driving record. In California, eight points can lead to a suspended license.

"Moving violations typically require the [Department of Motor Vehicles] to impose a point, and there is little reason that this dangerous traffic violation should be treated differently than others," Bloch said.

Courts and juries are recognizing the danger of texting and driving, Bloch said.

In one case this month, Martin Kuehl, 42, of Costa Mesa, was sentenced to four years in prison for killing a pedestrian while texting and driving, Bloch said. The prosecutor used cell phone records and witness accounts to show that Kuehl was texting behind the wheel during the half hour leading to the fatal crash.

The Auto Club survey also examined the level of hand-held and hands-free cell phone usage. These results show little change in use levels since the last surveys were conducted in 2009, Bloch said.

Nevertheless, the percent of people clasping a handset to their heads while driving is about 60 percent lower than the last survey of such behavior conducted before the state cell phone driving law was changed in June 2008.