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Why Are We So Hung Up on Hanging Up Behind the Wheel?

California law enforcement kicked off the first Distracted Driving Awareness Month for April, with zero-tolerance for those who continue to ignore the 2008 hands-free cell phone laws.

We should know better, but yet we still do it — talking or texting on our cell phones while driving.

Despite statistics that show drivers who don’t go hands-free are four times more likely to be involved in an injury crash, look around and you are all but guaranteed to find people (a lot of people) breaking the law.

Let's just say that when I say, "I spy a person talking on a cell phone driving the car" to my 4-year-old, there's more than one candidate in sight.

Case in point, a recent trip into San Francisco during rush hour was an unusually anxious experience for me (and I used to be a big-time commuter, I'd hazard to say, "road-warrior," so that is saying something). In bumper-to-bumper traffic, to co-opt a popular lyric, there were "texters to right of me, chatters to the left," and there I was, stuck in the middle waiting for the crash.

If you are one of those "it's no big deal" texter/chatter types, be prepared to put your money where your mouth is.

California kicked off its first in April, aimed at increasing the public’s compliance with hands-free cell phone laws that went into effect in 2008 and 2009.

Fines and penalties have yet to really loosen our grip on our beloved phones, but increased fines during this period may motivate people where they make their decisions—the wallet.

During April, local and state law enforcement agencies are partnering on a zero-tolerance enforcement campaign that increases the minimum fine from $25 to $159 minimum for a first offense, and from $50 to $279 minimum for subsequent offenses.

Ouch. Will that get your attention?

You know it’s tough to get people’s buy-in on an issue when even Oprah, who regularly sits atop the influence indexes, can barely make a dent.

To date, her No Phone Zone Pledge, whose goal is to get people to stop using their cell phones behind the wheel, has 423,330 pledges—a statistical drop in the bucket when you consider that as of December 2010 there were an estimated 302,947,098 cell phones in the United States.

Do the math; I'll wait.

When I conducted a random sampling of friends and residents, all of whom asked not to be identified, as well as a poll on Danville Patch’s Facebook community page, most said they do take calls behind the wheel, but “try to use a hands-free device.”

However, that statement often was followed by a guilty admission that "sometimes they don’t."

Reasons commonly given included:

  • “I forgot the earpiece.”
  • “Dead batteries.”
  • “The person I was talking to couldn’t understand me/I couldn’t understand them.”
  • “It was just a quick call/text.”
  • “My kid doesn’t always take my calls, but a text gets through.”
  • “I was using the GPS feature to get directions.”
  • “I’m a good multi-tasker.”
  • “I just needed a quick…”
  • "I pass the time waiting to pick-up my kids by reading or catching up."

Some of those same people, when I asked if they would be uncomfortable in a vehicle with someone who isn't using a hands-free device or is texting, answered emphatically “yes!”

For the parents reading, that would be a classic "do as I say, not as I do" situation.

So even when we know it’s illegal and potentially dangerous, and we (sometimes) feel a little sheepish about it, why do we still have a hard time putting down our cell phones?

Responses I received pointed toward a dependence on them for the details of life—appointments, directions, phone numbers, etc.— and their growing smart-technology capabilities to do things such as finding out what commute route is moving, pre-ordering your lunch and reading the latest book.

It also was clear that people are simply in the habit of using them constantly.

They really don't think that a mishap will happen to them or that they will be caught at it until it does and they are—sitting on the side of the road with a crumpled bumper (or worse), or seeing the the police lights in the rear-view mirror.

For those who said they make it a habit not to use their phones in the car, or will now because the ticket isn't worth it, the consensus was to turn the phone off and stash it in a place not easily reached.

We can't be trusted and it can wait.

At least that's what I'll tell myself when I'm tempted to pick up that call or see who just texted me.

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