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Distracted-driving deaths down since cellphone ban, study says

March 5, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
You may still see lots of drivers using their phones, but believe it or not, many are cutting down on cellphone use, and it's saving lives. According to new research, you can thank California's tough laws on distracted driving.

The authors of a new study say a ban on driver cellphone use is making a difference in the state's traffic death toll.

The ban on handheld cellphone use by drivers has been in place for nearly four years now. A new study's findings suggest the law is helping make California roads safer.

Police have been cracking down on drivers talking or texting on their cell phones since the ban began years ago. Now new figures that looked at state crash records two years before and two years after the ban on using handheld devices went into effect in 2008 show that overall traffic deaths are down 22 percent. Handheld cellphone driver deaths also dropped nearly in half.

The study from the University of California-Berkeley found a similar drop in injuries connected with drivers using cellphones.

"It tells me that people are getting the message," said California Highway Patrol Officer John Patterson. "It's usually because it hits their pocketbook. Convictions are up. Fines are a minimum of $159."

The fines can go up to $250 for each ticket after that.

"It's very dangerous, and when we're talking about distracted driving, cellphones are a big part of that because that's part of our daily lives now," said Patterson.

In 2010 Martin Kuehl was sentenced to four years in prison, convicted of vehicular manslaughter for texting while driving. He hit and killed a 32-year-old woman crossing the street in a crosswalk in Newport Beach.

"Drivers that are driving distracted are four times more likely to get into an accident that causes an injury, so it's a big deal," said Patterson.

Other surveys suggest the decline in deaths and injuries could be related to fewer people using their cellphones while driving.

While the study shows the ban is helping save lives, authorities say more can still be done. The CHP is trying to reach young drivers with programs to remind them to stay off their phones while in the car.

"Even hands-free, if you're under 18, you're not allowed to have it," said Patterson.

The CHP also urges parents to set a good example for kids and stay off the phone while driving.