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Backseat Driving from Sacramento

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

People think state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, is anti-cell phone because he wrote the law that, since July 1, has required California drivers to use hands-free cell phone devices when they are behind the wheel. Not true. Simitian told me, "I'm not hostile to cell phones."

It so happened that Simitian was driving and talking via hands-free technology when he returned my call Monday. My beef: It's too easy for California lawmakers to pass laws against unpopular behavior. It's like the cool kids passing laws against nerds -- except the nerds are in charge.

"I would not have spent six years working to get this thing passed if I had not believed it would save lives," said Simitian, citing a report, "What to Expect from California's Hands-Free Law," released by the Public Policy Institute of California, that predicted his law would prevent 300 fatalities each year.

Saving lives. It was the argument cell-phone restrictionists used even in the early years of cell-phone use, when studies found that other activities -- adjusting music, eating or drinking -- distracted drivers more than cell phones.

The fact that other distractions were more prevalent didn't matter. People have an instinctual dislike of other people talking and driving. It became Sacramento's job to line up the factoids to make a ban on gabbing and driving seem The Right Thing To Do.

To wit: In 2004, the California Highway Patrol cited cell-phone use as a contributing factor in 931 of that year's 441,334 collisions. According to California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Fran Clader, preliminary statistics for 2007 show 1,091 crashes in the state with a driver using a handheld cell phone; 447 people were injured in those crashes.

Clader herself was in a car that was broadsided by a woman who was chatting on her cell as she sailed through a red light. I sympathize. We've all heard the stories. But the other universal element in these accidents is: bad drivers.

In essence, the Legislature passed and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law to ban an activity deemed to be a factor, not necessarily the cause, in less than 1 percent of collisions.

Simitian countered that drivers may not tell officers they were on the phone. But since 2002, state law enforcement agencies have been directed to collect information on whether cell-phone distraction contributed to a crash. Here are some other numbers: In 2006, the CHP cited 220,168 uninsured drivers. According to the Department of Insurance, in 2006, 25 percent of insurance claims in California involved an uninsured motorist.

Want fewer accidents? Keep those clowns off the road.

Even Simitian noted that hands-free devices don't eliminate the distraction of talking and driving. As the PPIC report noted, "Existing studies of mobile phones and traffic safety have found that using hands-free technology is no safer than using hand-held phones while driving. It is also possible, as the former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said, that hands-free laws 'give hands-free phones a free pass as being safe' and could encourage drivers to use their phones more, thus raising the risk of collisions."

Simitian's strongest argument is that the "already available technology that costs next to nothing" allows a driver to enjoy the utility of the cell phone -- and keep both hands behind the wheel. If the state can pass a law requiring that technology, without ending the convenience, why not pass a law that makes drivers use it? It will save lives.

And if it turns out that driver distraction is a factor in a like number of accidents despite hands-free technology, will Simitian push a bill to ban all cell phone use while driving?

"It's a nonstarter," Simitian answered. "So why even think about it?"

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