SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- California's nearly four-year-old ban on drivers using handheld cellphones is saving lives, according to a University of California, Berkeley, study released Monday.
The study found that overall traffic deaths dropped 22 percent, while deaths blamed on drivers using hand-held cellphones were down 47 percent. Deaths among drivers who use hands-free phones dropped at a similar rate.
The university's Safe Transportation Research and Education Center examined deaths for two years before and two years after the cellphone ban took effect in July 2008. It found a similar drop in injuries attributed to drivers' cellphone use.
The number of deaths among drivers using hand-held phones fell from 100 to 53 during that period, while the number of injuries dropped from 7,720 to 3,862.
The California Office of Traffic Safety, which sought the study, said deaths and injuries are declining in part because of an overall decrease in drivers using cellphones.
An unrelated survey commissioned by the state last summer found 40 percent of drivers say they talk less while driving since the ban took effect, even if they have a legal hands-free device.
The California survey, which included 1,801 drivers 18 and over at gas stations in 15 counties, tracked a similar finding in 2010 by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The institute's survey found that 44 percent of drivers in states with cellphone bans said they don't use their phones while driving, compared with 30 percent in states that let drivers use hand-held cellphones.
Two previous studies, one by the nonprofit RAND Corp. and another by an affiliate of the insurance institute, found no overall reduction in vehicle crashes after the cellphone law took effect. The university said its study is the first to look specifically at collisions involving cellphone use.
The university findings surprised neither critics nor supporters of the state law.
"When you ban something, you're going to have less of it," said Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Willows. "Of course the numbers are going to go down."
Instead of looking for illegal cellphone use, LaMalfa said police should be on watch for erratic drivers no matter if they are distracted by cellphones, putting on makeup, shaving, or changing compact discs in a stereo system.
The Department of Motor Vehicles reported 460,487 handheld cellphone convictions last year, up 52 percent from the 301,833 convictions in 2009.
Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who authored the cellphone law, said he was gratified by the study's findings but thinks the state could do better if the financial penalty was higher.
He plans to amend his SB1310 to raise the current base penalty for a first offense from $20 to $30, with the additional $10 going to driver education programs. With court and other fees, a first offense currently costs drivers at least $159.
Gov. Jerry Brown last year vetoed a bill, SB28, that would have raised the base fine to $50. Brown said current penalties should be enough to deter illegal cellphone use.
"Distracted driving laws can and do save lives," said Simitian, adding that, "as good as these numbers are, they could be better" with a higher fine and more education.