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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Hang-Up-and-Drive Bill - Breathing Space Blog

Legislation banning the use of hand-held cellphones while driving goes into effect in 2008.
By Nancy Vogel, Times Staff Writer, September 15, 2006

SACRAMENTO — California will become the fourth state in the country to ban motorists from holding cellphones while driving under legislation Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he will sign into law today.

The governor's office said Thursday that the signing will take place in Oakland, ending a five-year campaign by Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) to outlaw one of the most common distractions of California drivers.

Under the law, which will take effect in July 2008, Californians risk a minimum $20 fine for driving while yakking into a phone — unless they are using a headset, speaker phone, ear bud or some other technology that frees both hands while they talk. Drivers in emergency situations would be exempt.

"Public safety is the governor's No. 1 priority," said Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Margita Thompson, "and this bill will make the streets and highways of California safer by ensuring that drivers have both hands available for driving."

The bill passed both legislative bodies in late August — the Assembly 50-28, and the Senate 21-16. In both houses, the measure passed with largely Democratic support and the votes of a few Republicans.

Although 38 state legislatures considered bills to minimize driving distractions such as cellphones this year, only New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and the District of Columbia have banned drivers from using hand-held cellphones.

It took Simitian five attempts to get enough support in the Legislature to pass the bill, but Schwarzenegger warmed to the idea quickly.

…the only official opponent of the bill was the Sprint-Nextel cellular phone company…

Simitian argued that the traffic safety risk of cellphone use while driving is "measurable and significant." In a letter sent Monday to the governor, the senator pointed to academic research in the Accident Analysis and Prevention journal that concluded that the risk of death is nine times greater for drivers who use a cellphone while driving.

California Highway Patrol data from 2004 show police reports for 775 accidents in which a driver at fault was using a hand-held cellphone.

There were only 28 reports of accidents in which drivers using hands-free phones were to blame. Preliminary data from last year show a similar pattern.

"When you're on your cellphone," wrote Simitian, "you are distracted at three different levels: aurally, visually and mentally. But what the hands-free requirement can and does accomplish is that … you will have both hands free to control the vehicle during those split seconds that make the difference between life and death."

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