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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

California Bans Cell Phone Use While Driving

New Hands-Free Cell Law for Drivers in Effect

Recently, a new California law took effect that requires hands-free devices for those behind the wheel.

Before beginning to issue citations, law enforcement officials in San Diego and in Oceanside were giving motorists a one-month grace period, but the California Highway Patrol and other agencies were ready to write tickets for July 4th weekend.

In suburban Glendale, CHP Officer Heather Hoglund said, "No grace period. The law was passed a year-and-a-half ago. There should be no reason why somebody didn't know that today was the day that they needed to be hands-free."

For weeks, electronic information signs along freeways had been warning drivers of the new law.

CHP's Sacramento Valley Division patrolling in Auburn witnessed 47 cell phone violations between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m. They issued 20 citations and let the others go with warnings to avoid further clogging traffic.

Some violators had hands-free devices but had not yet charged or figured our how to use them.

"People know about the law,” said CHP Officer Tammy DuTemple, “But just like everything else, they wait until the last minute.”

"I did not see one person holding the phone," she said, noticing a difference in motorists' behavior Tuesday.

Irvine police spokesman Lt. Rick Handfield said even he is not exempt from the new law. As he was driving recently, his phone rang while his Bluetooth headset was in his office charging.

"I had to think, 'What am I going to do with this call?'" he said. "I think I did the right thing by sending it to voicemail, but I think there will be a learning curve. I do think it'll be a paradigm shift."

Motorists were rushing out to purchase hands-free devices. Dewey Oates, a phone accessories salesman, said he has sold 50 to 75 Bluetooth wireless headsets a day (at $40 a pop) for the past week. That’s as many of the devices as he usually sells in a year, not to mention hundreds of cheaper, plug-in devices.

"From a business point of view, yes, and from a safety point of view, we enjoy it," he said.

Use of a hands-free device by drivers over 18 except in a medical or traffic emergency is required by law. Text messaging, while not specifically banned for adults, can be cited for negligence under existing laws, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Recently, a second law that took effect prohibits drivers under age 18 from using a wireless telephone, pager, laptop or any other electronic communication or mobile service device while driving. The ban includes hands-free usage and text messaging.

Although the penalty is only a minimum fine of $20 for the first ticket and $50 for subsequent ones, with court fees tacked on the real cost in Los Angeles County will run about $93 for the first ticket and $201 for the second.

While Washington, D.C. and five other states have adopted hands-free laws, the law in California could put a dent in the state's image as the driving capital of the USA. According to 2005 statistics from the Federal Highway Administration, California has nearly 22.9 million licensed drivers, far more than any other state.

Several studies have revealed that using cell phones distract drivers and may increase accidents, but there is little evidence that using a hands-free device mitigates the problem. California authorities hope the new laws will also reduce traffic accidents.

In 2001, New York became the first state to enact a hands-free law. According to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, New York state reported 1,170 crashes from 2001 through 2006 where handheld cell phones were considered a factor, versus 214 involving hands-free devices.

Mandating that motorists use hands-free devices won't eliminate the distraction of a deep conversation or heated argument, but it might reduce accidents by forcing drivers to keep at least one hand on the wheel.

At least with a hands-free cell phone, "when you're drinking your coffee and on the phone and smoking a cigarette, you're not driving with your knee any more," Hogland said.

Online courses are now available to educate drivers on the rules of the road and the latest defensive driving techniques. Try it today!

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