California bill to restrict drivers' cell phone use nears passage

| 8/31/2006

As the final hours tick down on the regular session in California, the Assembly has voted to approve a bill that would require drivers in the state to keep their hands off their phones.

Sponsored by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, the bill would ban hand-held cell phone use while driving. Talking on a phone equipped with a “hands-free” device would still be permitted.

The bill has been returned to the Senate for approval of changes. If approved before lawmakers adjourn their 2006 session Thursday, Aug. 29, it would head to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has indicated strong support for the effort.

Simitian said the effort is critical to increasing safety on the state’s roads.

“The difference between hand-held and hands-free is life and death,” Simitian told The Sacramento Bee. This is the sixth time he has introduced the legislation.

Opponents say the legislation is unnecessary. They say that multiple national studies suggest that holding the phone isn’t the problem – talking on it is. Others say behaviors such as eating, drinking and attending to children are more common distractions than cell phone use.

The bill – SB1613 – would make it a secondary offense to drive while using a hand-held phone – meaning a person would have to be pulled over for another violation before they could be ticketed for talking on the phone. Violators would face $20 fines. Repeat offenders would face $50 fines.

Among the exemptions listed in the bill are for emergency calls and using push-to-talk two-way, or “walkie-talkie,” devices that are popular in the trucking industry. The two-way device exemption would be in place until July 1, 2011.

Currently, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York have the only statewide laws restricting cell phone use in vehicles.