Sacramento (CA) - California drivers now must use a hands-free kit while talking on their mobile phones. In a new law that took effect July 1st, drivers are required to use either their phone’s speakerphone, a hands-free kit or a Bluetooth headset while talking. First time violators will be fined a minimum of $20, while subsequent violations will cost $50 each, but county court administrative fees and penalties could triple the fine.
The "Hands Free" law was introduced by California State Senator Joe Simitian (Democrat - Palo Alto) back in 2001 and it took several changes to get the bill to pass. California now joins other hands-free states/areas like Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Washington D.C. Washington State’s hands-free law also took effect today.
You can read the full text of California Vehicle Code section 23123 here. Interestingly enough, there is no explicit prohibition against text messaging in the law, but Senator Simitian promises to introduce another bill that will also prohibit text messaging while driving.
You can also see several exemptions for two-way radio use (the ones with the push-to-talk buttons) for farmers, bus drivers and tow truck drivers. As you can imagine, emergency workers like police officers and fire personnel are also exempt from the law.
Simitian says the sole reason for the law is to save lives. He cites recent California Highway Patrol statistics from 2007 that show more than 1000 crashes were caused by hand-held phone users. Those crashes injured 477 people. However, there is data that shows the mere act of talking on a phone (even with a hands-free device) can cause accidents. You can read a 2005 University of Utah study that drivers using hands-free phones still had a much higher rate of accidents.
So far enforcement of the new law has been mixed. The California Highway Patrol says there is no grace period and any drivers they pull over can be ticketed, however, like many traffic infractions, the officer can choose to issue the ticket or a warning. Other areas like San Diego and Oceanside have a one-month grace period where only warnings will be issued. Despite the apparent text messaging loophole in the vehicle code, Fresno police officers have been ordered to ticket drivers because the police chief believes texting still distracts the driver. We’ll see how that will hold up in court.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles, Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol have been in a public relations overdrive in the weeks leading up to today. Caltrans, the department charged with fixing the state’s freeways, has advertised the law on its road and Amber Alert signs. There have also been billboards warning drivers of the new law.
But many drivers are in the dark. Today we visited a local AT&T store to buy our Bluetooth headset (since we are law-abiding citizens) and the saleswoman said most people she talked to don’t know about the law. She added that Bluetooth headset sales have dramatically risen in the past few days. "It’s been crazy, we have about double or triple the business today," she told us.
California’s teenage "Hands-Off law" also started today. Drivers under 18 are now prohibited from using any electronic device - even with a hands-free kit - while behind the wheel.