Texting behind the wheel appears to be about double where it was before California's texting ban was implemented, according to a survey by the Automobile Club of Southern California. 

Some 19 months after the texting ban went into effect, the level of texting and use of other devices such as smart phones has jumped to 2.7 percent of drivers at any time - about double where it was before California's ban went into effect in January 2009. However, the level of hand-held cell phone use on the road at seven locations in Southern California has held constant at 3.7 percent.

These results indicate that California needs to do more to combat the growing traffic safety problem caused by texting and driving, according to the Auto Club. "Stronger penalties, more driver awareness and education, and heightened enforcement are needed to significantly reduce one of the most dangerous activities a driver can do while on the road," said the Auto Club's Government Affairs Manager Steve Finnegan. "The rise in texting indicates that the growth of texting overall has outpaced current enforcement efforts and overcome the current law, which should be strengthened to enhance safety," he added.

Current penalties for texting while driving in the Golden State are inadequate to deter the behavior, said Finnegan. A motorist caught texting while driving is now assessed a $20 base fine for a first offense, and, unlike other moving violations, no "point" is placed on the motorist's driving record. 

A bill, SB 1475, to strengthen the texting while driving ban by increasing penalties, including adding a point to driving records, was recently defeated in the state legislature. Finnegan said the Auto Club, which supported the bill, believes the legislature should reconsider and enact it next year to deter drivers from texting.

"Studies have established that imposing points on driving records is a very effective deterrent to hazardous driving," said the Auto Club's senior researcher and study author Steven Bloch. 

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted driver and an additional 515,000 people were injured. A recent analysis by AAA and Seventeen magazine found most teen drivers today (84 percent) are aware of the risks of distracted driving, yet 86 percent admit doing it anyway.

Issuing more citations is another approach. However, it's difficult for law enforcement agencies to cite texting motorists since drivers typically hold devices in their lap. Because of this challenge, the California Highway Patrol reports issuing an average of only about 200 citations per month since the texting ban went into effect. By comparison, over the past year, the CHP issued about 12,500 hand-held cell phone citations each month.

Who are the biggest violators in the Auto Club driver survey? Among texters, young women were the most frequent group observed texting during the study (4.3 percent texting at any time), while young men's rate of texting stood at 2.1 percent. By contrast, use of smart phones and other hand-held technology (iPods, etc.) was more the domain of young men - 3.1 percent versus 1.6 percent for young women.

The rise in texting while driving mirrors the dramatic growth in mobile communications device use overall. Text messaging is increasing rapidly and multi-media messaging more than doubled from 2008 to 2009.  Various studies have shown that texting while driving increases the risk of a crash from 8 to 23 times. 

Before and after the ban, the Auto Club has been regularly monitoring cell phone and other device use. Until now, results had been promising, showing that California's laws were effective in reducing use, said Bloch. Researchers call texting a "perfect storm" of risky driving activity because drivers take their hands off the steering wheel and their eyes and minds are off the road.

California became the nation's seventh state to ban texting while driving in January 2009. The Auto Club's recent survey, conducted in late March and early April 2010, showed that texting had more than doubled from previous studies - to 1.1 percent - but was still slightly below pre-law levels.