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‘Hang up and drive' about to become California law

• On July 1, cell phones can't be held when you're driving

Posted: June 21, 2008 10:51 p.m.
Updated: August 23, 2008 5:02 a.m.
 

Come July 1, it's time to hang up and drive.

On that day, a new wireless telephone law will go into effect, restricting the use of mobile phones while driving. Under the new law, no driver may hold a mobile phone to his ear or affix his fingers on the phone's key pad.

Many a time, in the midst of our commutes, we have glanced at the car next to us, and our eyes notice one hand on the steering wheel and the other hand holding a mobile phone.

In recent years, that hand with the mobile is not just holding the phone to one's ear, that hand is now typing text messages.

All too often, with the punching of buttons comes a diversion of attention - eyes veer off the road and onto the LCD screens to ensure that the right letters are punched, or the correct numbers are dialed.

In nearly one week, legislators and law enforcement officials hope that fewer eyes that stray off the road after two new laws take effect.

Last year, two laws passed that specifically limit the way mobile phones are used by drivers.

One of those laws is specifically targeted toward drivers age 18 and under, while the other law affects everyone else.

"Basically, anyone over 18 may use a hands-free phone," said Szu-Pei Lu, an insurance attorney who works on automobile-related cases. "Under the new laws, no one is allowed to use a handheld telephone while operating a vehicle, regardless of age."

Lu was referring to state Vehicle Code sections 23123 and 23124, which go into effect at 12:01 a.m. on July 1.

Under section 23123, all drivers are prohibited "from using a handheld wireless telephone while operating a motor vehicle." That section, however, does allow drivers over the age of 18 to use a "hands-free device," such as a Bluetooth or speakerphone. Also legal are vehicles that have phones installed into the stereo system and speakers.

Lu added that the law does not specifically prohibit dialing. Also, she said that if a driver relies upon a blue-tooth device, it may only be used in one ear. Both ears cannot be covered under the new laws.

However, the more restrictive law is section 23124. Under that section, drivers under the age of 18 are prohibited from using any kind of mobile phone - even hands-free devices.

"The theory is that drivers under the age of 18 just are not experienced enough, hence more likely to get into a traffic collision or accident, even if they are operating a hands-free phone," Lu said. "It's just good public policy. Safety is the main reason for these two laws."

As with any law, the two new vehicle code sections come with exceptions and penalties.

There is one exception and one exemption under the new laws. The one exception allows a driver, regardless of age, to use a mobile phone to make emergency calls without relying on hands-free or speakerphone modes. The emergency call exception also applies to drivers under the age of 18.

Also, passengers are exempt from the law.

However, there are no exceptions for out-of-state drivers. While most states have not enacted similar laws, both laws apply to every driver within the state, regardless of residency.

In terms of penalties, there are several layers of fines.

According to the vehicle code, the base fine for the first offense is $20. For every violation after that, the fine is increased to $50.

However, the state's Uniform Bail and Penalty Schedule increase those base fines to $76 for the first offense, and $190 for every offense after that.

If convicted for a violation of the wireless telephone law, the offense will be placed on the driver's record. However, no violation points will be assessed by the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Lu also added that text messaging is not specifically prohibited under the new laws, though a driver may be cited if an officer or deputy believes that the driver's text messaging impaired their driving.

The new cell phone law has prompted many drivers to hit the stores in search of the right equipment.

Ricky Bhatti, a sales associate at Taut Wireless in Valencia, said he's seen an increase in the number of people purchasing wireless gadgets.

Earlier in the week, he had six customers in one day.

"We're ordering a lot of speakerphones," he said, adding that Bluetooth is also a popular buy.

 

Finding the perfect fit

Chris Dierckman of Valencia said he purchased a Bluetooth last week because of the new cell phone law.

"I thought it was convenient," he said about the product. "I can use it in the car and at home when I'm typing on the computer."

His father, Tom, said he's in "good shape" when it comes to his car that he uses for business because the vehicle has a phone installed through the radio and speaker system.

As for his personal car, Tom Dierckman said he's still looking for the proper hands-free device.

Sherry Shuster of Valencia believes the new law is important for public safety, but she's been having trouble finding the right product.

"I have three cars with Bluetooth and I can't hear on them," she said, noting that the wireless earpiece creates too much background noise making her conversations difficult.

For those who still haven't made it out to the store, Marie Montgomery, spokeswoman for the Auto Club of Southern California, said drivers have a lot of options when it comes to finding the right hands-free device.

"It looks like there's a lot of different things out there," she said.

For instance, many cars have phones already installed in their vehicles. Montgomery said there are also gadgets that act as speakerphones that people can put on their sun visors.

There are also the many wireless options, including the popular Bluetooth that goes in a person's ear.

The prices for the products also range and Montgomery said certain products can cost under $100 while some can be several hundred dollars.

People who don't want to spend a dime on a wireless product just yet can explore their own cell phones.

"It's simple as using the earpiece that comes with the cell phone in the first place," Montgomery said. The phone's speakerphone feature can also be used as a hands-free device.

Montgomery also suggests people use the phone's voice activated features.

Regardless, Montgomery recommends people become familiar with their products well before July 1.

"You want to make sure it's not an option that will create more distractions," she said.

But ultimately, Montgomery reminds drivers that talking and driving can still be a dangerous task. She suggests people keep their phone conversations as brief as possible.

"Hands free is not distraction free," she said.

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