Image: California man driving with cell phone
Kevork Djansezian  /  AP
A man talks on his cell phone while driving in Los Angeles prior to a hands-free cellphone law. California's crackdown is part of a nationwide movement to get drivers' attention focused on the road rather than their conversations and their gadgets.
By
updated 7/2/2008 11:07:53 AM ET 2008-07-02T15:07:53

Millions of California motorists have had to put down their cell phones or risk a ticket as a new law takes effect requiring hands-free devices for those behind the wheel.

Police in San Diego and in Oceanside were giving motorists a one-month grace period before beginning to issue citations, but the California Highway Patrol and other agencies were ready to write tickets Tuesday.

"No grace period. The law was passed a year-and-a-half ago," said CHP Officer Heather Hoglund, a spokeswoman in suburban Glendale. "There should be no reason why somebody didn't know that today was the day that they needed to be hands-free."

Electronic information signs along freeways had been warning drivers for weeks.

Officers of the CHP's Sacramento Valley Division patrolling in Auburn witnessed 47 cell phone violations between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m. They issued 20 citations and let the others go with warnings so as not to further clog traffic.

CHP Officer Tammy DuTemple said some violators had hands-free devices but had not yet charged or figured our how to use them. "People know about the law, but just like everything else, they wait until the last minute," she said.

Hoglund said she noticed a difference in motorists' behavior Tuesday. "I did not see one person holding the phone," she said.

Lt. Rick Handfield, a spokesman for Irvine police, said even he had to adjust to the new law. His phone rang as he was driving Tuesday and his Bluetooth headset was in his office charging.

"I had to think, 'What am I going to do with this call?'" he said. "I think I did the right thing by sending it to voicemail, but I think there will be a learning curve. I do think it'll be a paradigm shift."

Motorists also were rushing to purchase hands-free devices.

Dewey Oates, who owns two Los Angeles roadside stands that sell phone accessories, said for the past week he has sold 50 to 75 Bluetooth wireless headsets a day — as many of the $40 devices as he usually sells in a year — not to mention hundreds of cheaper, plug-in devices.

"From a business point of view, yes, and from a safety point of view, we enjoy it," Oates said.

The law requires use of a hands-free device by drivers over 18 except in a medical or traffic emergency. Text-messaging is not specifically banned for adults, but the California Highway Patrol said they can be cited for negligence under existing laws.

A second law that took effect Tuesday bars drivers under age 18 from using a wireless telephone, pager, laptop or any other electronic communication or mobile service device while driving. The ban extends to hands-free usage and text-messaging.

The laws carry a minimum fine of $20 for the first ticket and $50 for subsequent ones but with court fees tacked on, the real cost in Los Angeles County will run about $93 for the first ticket and $201 for the next, according to Superior Court calculations.

While five other states and Washington, D.C., have adopted hands-free laws, the law in California could put a dent in the state's image as the capital of car-crazy narcissism. California has nearly 22.9 million licensed drivers, far more than any other state, according to 2005 statistics from the Federal Highway Administration.

Authorities hope it also will reduce traffic accidents. Several studies have shown that using cell phones distract drivers and may increase accidents, although there is scant evidence that using a hands-free device mitigates the problem.

New York, the first state to enact a hands-free law in 2001, reported 1,170 crashes from 2001 through 2006 where handheld cell phones were considered a factor, versus 214 involving hands-free devices, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Forcing motorists to use hands-free devices won't eliminate the distraction of an engrossing conversation or heated argument but it might reduce fender-benders by forcing drivers to keep at least one hand on the wheel, Hoglund said.

At least with a hands-free cell phone, "when you're drinking your coffee and on the phone and smoking a cigarette, you're not driving with your knee any more," she said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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