Hands Off Those Cell Phones at Red Lights in California

The problem of distracted driving has the attention of lawmakers in every state these days. California laws on driver use of cell phones and other devices are already some of the toughest in the country. And now you can add to that set of rules yesterday’s decision from a California appeals court: Next time you grab your cell phone to make a quick call or send a brief text message while you’re waiting out a red light, you can still get ticketed for a $103 traffic violation, even though your vehicle isn’t moving. The three-judge appellate panel in yesterday’s decision held that a driver who is stopped at a red light is still “driving” under California’s Vehicle Code — specifically, the driver is merely “pausing momentarily” at the light, in compliance with the rules of the road. So, use of a hand-held device while stopped at a red light is still a violation of California’s distracted driving laws.    

Read a PDF of yesterday’s decision: People v. Nelson, from the California Courts website.  

With iPhones and Blackberries becoming more and more pervasive — and drivers increasingly unwilling to go unplugged even on a trip to the dry cleaners — distracted driving has become a leading cause of car accidents. In 2009, 20 percent of all injury-causing car accidents involved distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). And a driver who is using a hand-held device is four times as likely to get into a serious-injury car accident, says the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). This is all on top of numerous studies showing that drivers who use a cell phone while driving (even those who go hands-free) have their reaction time and judgment impaired to the same level as a driver who is legally intoxicated.

Learn more about Car Accidents Caused by Cell Phone Use from Nolo. And visit Distraction.gov, the federal government’s new web portal on distracted driving.