New California law expands restrictions on use of cell phones behind the wheel
On Monday, Sept. 26, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill prohibiting a de facto pastime among the state's drivers -- a practice that a fraction of those motorists no longer have the capacity to abandon.
California Assembly Bill (AB) 1785 significantly expands restrictions on the use of cell phones behind the wheel, prohibiting drivers from holding and operating their phones for any reason. It allows drivers to activate their devices' functions through a single swipe or tap, but the phone must be mounted on the car's dashboard or windshield.
The new law also prohibits other uses of cell phones while driving, including the examination of maps, the adjustment of playlists, taking of photographs and streaming of video. It does not apply to factory-installed devices already in the vehicle.
It also does not apply to emergency service vehicle operators using such devices in performance of their duties. School and transit bus operators, however, are liable under the current law.
The bill, which takes effect Jan. 1, was written by Hayward Democrat Bill Quirk, whose Assembly passed it August 23 following a series of amendments in 2016. The state Senate approved it days earlier.
“This bill," Quirk said in a statement following the governor's action, "targets the deadliest cause of distracted driving-related crashes, the use of an electronic device while driving. The accidents, injuries and deaths associated with this form of distracted driving are completely preventable. I am proud that Governor Brown has agreed that it is time that we update our archaic laws on the issue and do our part to make sure drivers are focused on the road."
The bill cites research from the University of Utah that found that using a cell phone, even hands free, delays a driver's reactions to the same degree as having a blood alcohol concentration of .08, California's legal limit. Similarly, it says, a Carnegie Mellon University study found that driving while using a cell phone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent.
"The distracting effect of cell phones," the bill asserts, "is not limited to the fact that drivers look away from the road to use them."
It's already illegal for California drivers to text or call from behind the wheel without a hands-free device, but the current bill fails to address advances in technology, such as transmission and navigation applications that weren't in use when laws were originally passed. Early cell phone driving restrictions went into effect from 2006 to 2008, with texting violations following in January of 2009.
Furthermore, the new bill notes, "The (current) texting prohibition specifically exempts the act of dialing a number or inputting a name into a directory to retrieve a phone number, and the law related to speaking on a hand-held cell phone provides no guidance on the act of dialing."
An annual study of California drivers reflects that almost 13 percent currently use cellular communications devices while behind the wheel, up from 10 percent last year.
A statement from Quirk's office noted that here were 12 fatal collisions involving handheld cellphones in 2015. The California Highway Patrol, the statement continued, issued more than 13,000 citations for violating the ban on writing, sending or reading text-based communications while driving. It added that another 78,000 citations were issued for using a wireless telephone while driving.
Two years earlier, the DMV reported some 426,000 handheld cell phone and texting convictions.
In August, Temecula Republican Jeff Stone had lodged his opposition to the bill.
"I certainly appreciate the author's good intentions in this bill," Stone told the Assembly, "as many people that are texting and e-mailing while driving cause significant accidents, including death. But I think the bill is not well-written. It's ambiguous in defining the term 'operating,' which can include innocent uses such as changing music on a handheld device as illegal which changing stations on a car radio is legal.
"This bill," Stone continued, "opens the door for abuse of enforcement, as law enforcement could justify pulling a vehicle over just because the phone is present in the vehicle and not configured for hands-free and voice-operated use."
The first violation under the new bill will result in a fine of $20, with each subsequent infraction costing $50.