CA bill increases fines for drivers’ cell phone use
SACRAMENTO, Calif. and#8212;Nearly three years after California made it illegal to use a hand-held cell phone while driving, the state Senate on Monday approved a bill that would increase fines for texting or using a hand-held cell phone while driving.
The base fine would increase from $20 to $50 per violation under the bill, which now goes to the Assembly. With various fees, a first offense would cost $328, up from the current $208.
A repeat offender could be fined $100, or $528 with fees. A subsequent violation would also add one point to the motorist’s driving record.
“The goal here is simply to save more lives,” said Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto.
He said his original bill, which took effect in July 2008, deterred 60 percent to 70 percent of drivers from using hand-held devices while driving, even as the use of cell phones increased.
However, he said it will take more deterrence and education to bring compliance near the 90-plus percent seen for the use of seat belts. Under the bill, $10 from each fine would go to a fund to educate drivers about the dangers of distracted driving.
His SB28 also would make it illegal to talk on a hand-held cell phone while riding a bicycle.
Simitian cites California Highway Patrol statistics showing a 20 percent reduction in fatalities and collisions in the first year after his handsfree law took effect in July 2008. The texting-while-driving prohibition took effect in January 2009. He said the statistics show the law helped save at least 700 lives and avoid more than 75,000 collisions annually compared to previous years.
A Senate analysis of 2005 and 2010 crash statistics found “a significant downward trend,” but couldn’t attribute the trend to less cell phone use. The analysis found a less significant drop when comparing only those crashes were cell phone use was listed as a contributing cause.
CHP spokeswoman Fran Clader said that is because drivers are often reluctant to admit they were using a cell phone illegally. Neither the CHP nor Simitian’s office had statistics on crashes involving bicyclists using cell phones.
Simitian’s bill passed on a 24-12 vote, over the objections of several Republicans who said the bill goes too far and is disliked by drivers.
“People out there, they hate this bill. It makes them angry that you can’t just casually use a cell phone in appropriate situations in an automobile,” said Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Willows. He said the bill is an example of the state’s slide toward “nanny government.”
He argued that the state should leave it to the discretion of law enforcement officers to stop motorists they see driving erratically or recklessly, regardless of the reason.
Simitian said the law is a popular commonsense safety measure, even if drivers are upset when they are caught.
A similar bill died last year in an Assembly committee. Senate approval this year comes during “distracted driving awareness month.”
The CHP issued more than 9,700 tickets for illegal cell phone use through Friday, and will write significantly more through April than the 10,000 to 11,000 it would issue in a typical month.
The CHP and local agencies have “zero tolerance” days scheduled for Tuesday in the Sacramento area; Wednesday in the Los Angeles area; and Thursday in the San Francisco Bay area and counties north of Sacramento.
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