California Drivers Ignore Hands-Free Law

California Drivers Ignore Hands-Free LawABC News
CHP Has Arrested More than 100,000 Since Hand-Held Cell Phone Law Took Effect

If you live in one of the 18 states where it is illegal to drive while talking on a hand-held cell phone you probably see fellow drivers breaking the law frequently. Maybe you're even guilty of driving while holding a phone.

In California that would place you in good -- and broad -- company. First lady Maria Shriver has been seen doing it repeatedly, and the California Highway Patrol says it has written more than 100,000 tickets to drivers caught talking on hand-held cell phones since a law prohibiting it went into effect a year-and-a-half ago.

VIDEO: CHP officer catches drivers talking on cell phones.Play

The solution seems so simple -- a $30 earpiece or Bluetooth device is all it takes to adhere to the law. But in California it seems many drivers have decided to do it the old fashioned way. They hold their phones in plain sight of fellow drivers and police, blatantly breaking the law and apparently not caring.

California Highway Patrol Officer Rick Quintero says it's like shooting fish in a barrel when he patrols the Los Angeles freeways. On one morning in Southern California with ABC News riding shotgun, Quintero pulled over driver after driver for talking on their hand-held cell phones.

VIDEO: Website catches Maria Shriver breaking Ca. cell phone law.Play

"They give you the same excuse that a drunk would give you," Quintero explained. "They say, 'I've driven drunk many times and I've never been involved in a wreck.' Same thing with a cell phone. They say, 'I've used my cell phone dozens of times, and I've never been involved in a wreck.' Until you get involved in a wreck."

The drivers Quintero pulled over seemed mostly apologetic and not all that surprised they got caught. Ed Howard told ABC News he knew he was busted the second he saw the black-and-white CHP patrol car.

"I know it's against the law," Howard said. "I've just been lazy. Now I'm going to go buy a Bluetooth."

One woman pulled over tried to hide it, claiming she was only using her Global Positioning System device and saying it was crazy to think she was using her phone. But she lost that battle with Quintero, who pointed out that typically you do not hold a GPS device up to your ear and talk into it.

Some drivers complain that the audio quality of hands-free devices is too poor, or that it takes too long to charge the batteries. Others, like Howard, admit that they're just lazy.

California Cell Phone Law Brings Light Punishment

Critics say the reason drivers are so willing to break the law is that the consequences are too light. In California, a ticket for violating the hands-free law brings a fine of only $20. After court and administrative costs, it usually runs a driver between $100 and $150.

Anne McCartt at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety believes the low cost of the ticket is the main reason why so many drivers ignore California's law. "That may be too low to be a good deterrent," McCartt explained from her office in Washington D.C.

Many drivers will tell you they think the cell phone laws are silly.

"It's no different than eating while you're driving," said John Sanchez, who has been ticketed for talking on a cell phone. "But they don't give you a ticket for holding a sandwich or a Coke."

Sanchez may have a valid point. Studies like one done by the IIHS show banning hand-held cell phones doesn't seem to make much of a difference.

"People who switch to hands-free, our research would suggest, are not really any safer," said McCartt. "Talking on a hands-free phone isn't really safe either."

The research shows it's not the act of holding a cell phone that makes driving and chatting unsafe. Instead it's the focus many people give to those cell phone conversations, hands-free or not, which takes their focus off the roads.

McCartt also said nationwide there is a belief that police are not enforcing cell phone laws, making drivers feel like they can get away with it.

"People may have obeyed the law initially, but over time if they don't believe there will be consequences for violating the law then more and more people will begin the habit again," she said.

With 100,000 people already ticketed, California police are trying to do their part. Quintero says as long as it is the law he'll continue to pull over drivers who are openly yapping away.