SAN JOSE – Today, Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian and Sheriff Robert Jonsen announced the County’s efforts to increase awareness about distracted driving with stepped up education and enforcement. April is “Distracted Driving Awareness Month,” both nationally and here in Santa Clara County.
“Distracted driving is anything that takes your eyes, your hands, or your mind away from the task of driving,” said Sheriff Jonsen. “Mobile devices remain the biggest distraction for drivers – whether it’s talking, texting, emailing, pictures, facetiming or using an app.”
In 2006, California passed a law requiring that cell phones be used “hands free” while drivers are behind the wheel. The law was authored by Simitian, who was then a member of the California State Senate. The State’s new “hands-free” law then took effect on July 1, 2008. The following year, traffic fatalities dropped 20 percent, and there were 700 fewer deaths on California roads and highways. In 2008, Simitian introduced a follow-up bill to prohibit texting while driving which became law and took effect in 2009.
“My ‘hands-free’ cell phone bill might seem like simple common sense these days, but it was a hard sell at the time,” said Simitian. “It took me six efforts over a half-dozen years before it finally passed in 2006, with a razor thin margin.”
While progress has been made, the issue of distracted driving remains significant. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s most recent report found that despite the laws in place distracted driving is still a concern; in 2021 there was a 12 percent increase in fatalities where at least one driver was distracted, which resulted in 3,522 deaths nationwide. In Santa Clara County alone in 2021, there were more than 200 car crashes that involved distracted driving and 13 people were seriously injured or killed.
“It’s clear that most California drivers ‘get it.’ They understand just how dangerous distracted driving is, and most are doing their part to make our roads safer,” said Simitian. “But we also know that there are still too many drivers texting and talking while holding their phones.”
Current California laws prohibit drivers from using a cell phone or mobile device while holding it in their hand, even when stopped at a red light. The device can only be used in a hands-free manner, such as speaker phone or voice commands, but never while holding it. Any driver under the age of 18 is prohibited from using a cell phone while driving (except emergency calls), even hands free.
“Distracted driving not only impacts other drivers, but it affects passengers, pedestrians and cyclists as well,” said Dr. Lubna Husain, Emergency Department Medical Director at O’Connor Hospital. “Every day we see the results of someone choosing to drive distracted, from minor shake ups to more severe injuries. Paying attention and driving safely protects not only yourself but also your loved ones and neighbors.”
Law enforcement agencies have the authority to enforce “hands-free” laws. This month, the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office will provide increased enforcement for motorists using a handheld mobile device. Vehicle enforcement stops will include an educational reminder about the law, and repeat or severe offenders will be issued a citation.
Sheriff Jonsen reminds drivers to “put your phone down and just drive.”
This week, the County will roll out an awareness campaign with ads and educational information in several languages. Visit leavethephonealone.info to learn more about distracted driving.