June 30, 2008

New Cell Limits Hit Road Soon

By Mike Cruz

Beginning Tuesday, a new state law prohibiting the use of hand- held wireless phones while driving could be costly to motorists in more ways than one.

Police officers will begin stopping drivers who violate the new law. There is no grace period, but officers can decide whether a ticket is warranted.

"Just because an officer pulls you over for it doesn't mean you're going to get a ticket," said San Bernardino police Lt. Scott Paterson. "It is the officer's discretion."

Fines may be just the beginning when it comes to discouraging motorists from using hand-held phones while driving.

The base fine for a first offense is $20. That rises to $50 for a subsequent conviction, according to the California Highway Patrol. Add in the penalty assessments, and the fines rise to $76 and $190, respectively.

Prosecutors in the District Attorney's Office are still researching the law's impact on motorists who cause a collision, resulting in serious injury or death, while using a hand-held cell phone, said spokeswoman Susan Mickey.

For example, what if a motorist on the phone runs a red light and hits another vehicle, causing a death?

"Obviously, the main part of the case would be the running the red light and causing the crash," Mickey said. "But being on the phone, too, may be negligent or add to the negligence."

A violation of the cell phone law would help strengthen the case against that motorist, Mickey said, after discussing the issue with Assistant District Attorney Jim Hackleman.

The issue could also come into play in civil lawsuits, law- enforcement officials said.

The new law regarding wireless phones is actually a pair of new laws, one affecting all motorists and one specific to drivers under 18 years old.

The first law prohibits all drivers using a hand-held wireless phone while operating a motor vehicle, per California Vehicle Code Section 23123.

Officials advise that if adults must use their cell phone, they should invest in a hands-free device.

The second law prohibits drivers under 18 from using either a wireless phone or a hands-free device while operating a vehicle, per Vehicle Code Section 23124.

Violations could result in citations and fines, but the Department of Motor Vehicles will not assign a point to the records of drivers who get citations.

There are exceptions to the laws.

For example, a driver may use a cell phone to make emergency calls to a law enforcement agency, a medical provider, the fire department or other emergency agency, according to the Highway Patrol.

Also, law enforcement and emergency personnel are exempt from the cell phone law during the course of employment.

Adult drivers are permitted to use the speaker phone function while driving. However, the law does not specifically address text messaging while driving.

Nevertheless, an officer can pull over a motorist and issue a citation if in that officer's opinion, the driver was distracted and not operating the vehicle safely, according to the Highway Patrol.

The two new laws were the result of Senate Bills 1613 and 33, authored by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in September 2006.

The Automobile Club of Southern California warns drivers that going hands-free does not eliminate the distraction in the vehicle.

"It's the conversation that is the most important distraction for the driver, not the device itself," said Steve Bloch, the Auto Club's senior researcher, in a statement.

The Auto Club advises that planning trips in advance eliminates the need for calling for directions. It also suggests motorists wait to reach a destination before taking phone calls or ask a passenger to answer the phone.

"Advance planning will help toward being prepared for adapting to these new laws," Bloch added, "But remember, hands-free is not risk- free."

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