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Calif. bill hikes fines for illegal cell phone use

Cell phones are causing fewer accidents since California outlawed the use of handheld devices behind the wheel, but the senator behind the law says too many people are still driving distracted.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Cell phones are causing fewer accidents since California outlawed the use of handheld devices behind the wheel, but the senator behind the law says too many people are still driving distracted.

A bill by Sen. Joe Simitian would create a bigger deterrent to keep drivers from texting or using a cell phone without a handsfree device.

"While I think compliance is pretty good, there's room to save even more lives and avoid even more collisions," said Simitian, D-Palo Alto.

His bill, scheduled for a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Public Safety Committee, would increase the fine for holding a cell phone from $20 to $50 for a first offense, and from $50 to $100 for repeat offenders. Texting-while-driving would draw a $100 fine, up from the current $20 for first offenders and $50 for repeated violators.

Court costs and fees drive up the actual cost beyond the fines themselves. Simitian's bill would also add a "point" on motorists' driving records for violations. The bill would devote $10 from each fine to a public awareness program. Simitian's bill also would extend both laws to bicyclists.

The prohibitions already in place seem to be reducing distracted driving, statistics show.

The California Highway Patrol blamed 612 accidents on handheld cell phone use in the six months before the handsfree law took effect on July 1, 2008. It recorded 315 such accidents in the first six months after the law took effect, a nearly 50 percent reduction.

On the other hand, accidents blamed on drivers distracted by their handsfree devices increased from 40 in the six months before the law to 69 in the six months thereafter. Simitian said the jump reflects the increase in handsfree calling.

Collisions and fatalities dropped about 20 percent from the previous five-year average after California's handsfree law took effect. The ban on texting-while-driving took effect Jan. 1, 2009, and as of July 1, 2008, it was illegal for drivers under age 18 to use a cell phone even with a handsfree device.

"It means that somewhere in California, a couple of people are going to sit down with their families tonight who wouldn't have without this law. To me that's very satisfying," Simitian said.

The CHP issued nearly 234,000 tickets through 2009 for violating the three laws.

Nationally, the nonprofit National Safety Council blames 28 percent of traffic accidents annually on motorists talking or texting while driving.

"Driving a car is not the time to be multitasking," said CHP spokeswoman Fran Clader.

The patrol has not taken a position on the bill, she said.

There was little organized opposition to Simitian's previous bills, though the cell phone industry and some lawmakers noted that tuning the radio, eating, or attending to children or pets can be at least as distracting. All are listed in the CHP statistics, but none approach the number of accidents blamed on cell phones.

Among other bills scheduled for hearings this week:

  • Registered sex offenders would be banned from online social networking Web sites under a bill by Assemblywoman Norma Torres, D-Ponoma. While many social networking sites already ban sex offenders, they can skirt the rules by using a false identity. The bill set for debate Tuesday in the Assembly Public Safety Committee would make violations a misdemeanor.
  • Executions would be blocked if a court rules that the convict's race was a significant factor in imposing the death penalty, under a bill set for a Senate Public Safety Committee hearing Tuesday. The bill by Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, would apply the prohibition even to inmates already on death row if attorneys show with statistics or other evidence that persons of some races are more likely to be sentenced to die.
  • In a state that often is on the front lines of the gay rights debate, the law books are out of date, says Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach. Her bill, to be heard in the Assembly Public Safety Committee Tuesday, would remove a law requiring the state Department of Mental Health to research the causes and cures of "sexual deviation," specifically including homosexuality. The research was meant to help identify potential sex offenders.
  • The national health care overhaul will extend insurance coverage to millions of Americans. One California lawmaker wants to take those protections farther: to man's best friend. Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, would prohibit the pet insurance industry from denying coverage to an animal based on a pre-existing condition. His bill will be heard Wednesday in the Assembly Insurance Committee.
  • Undocumented immigrants and individuals who do not identify with their birth sex could get local identification cards, under an Assembly bill before the Senate Local Government Committee on Wednesday. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, would let counties issue ID cards to anyone who can provide proof of identity and residence, regardless of immigration status or gender identity. Recipients could use the cards for services including filing police reports and opening bank accounts.

  • The California Air Resources Board would lose its power to launch a cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, under a bill by Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga. The board is crafting a carbon market as a way to regulate emissions as it carries out California's global warming law. Dutton's bill would permit a state only if a national program was already in place or as part of a regional program among six other Western states and four Canadian provinces. The measure is scheduled to be heard Monday in the Senate Environmental Quality Committee.