Driving while talking on a cellphone or texting may get costlier if Gov. Jerry Brown signs a bill that passed out of the Legislature yesterday to increase the fines for the offenses.
Senate Bill 28, authored by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, will also add a "point” on driving records for second offenses, leading to higher insurance rates for those who do not comply with the state’s hands-free law, which went into effect in July 2008.
The bill also will now apply to bicyclists, who were unintentionally omitted from Simitian’s original hands-free law.
"Bicyclists also have to abide by the rules of the road,” Simitian said.
Currently, the fine for a first offense for violating the hands-free law is $20 and $50 for the second offense. The new fines will be $50 for the first offense and $100 for the second.
"The fine is relatively modest compared to other traffic fines,” Simitian said yesterday.
With penalties and fees, the total cost for a first offense would go up from about $189 to $309, depending on the county.
Part of the fee increase will go toward a fund for distracted-driver education through the state Office of Traffic Safety. SB 28 also makes it a primary offense for teen drivers who violate the law. Drivers under 18 are prevented from using any devices, hands-free or not, under Senate Bill 33, which Simitian also authored.
SB 28 will allow the state to now qualify for federal funding on distracted driving.
Since the hands-free law went into effect three years ago, fatal traffic accidents and collisions have dropped significantly in the state, Simitian said.
"We’ve seen good results but we need more compliance,” Simitian said.
Driver distractions are the leading cause of most vehicle crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Since Simitian’s law went into effect, statistics compiled by the state indicate there were 700 fewer fatalities on the roads the first year after the law went into effect and a 20 percent reduction in traffic collisions.
"It is worth saving lives,” Simitian said.
Research by the AAA Automobile Club of Southern California and the state’s Office of Traffic Safety suggest a 60 percent to 70 percent compliance rate with the state’s hands-free driving law.
Stiffer fines and penalties have the potential to improve compliance with the law and make the public safer, Simitian said.
The bill has the support of the San Mateo Police Department, said Police Chief Susan Manheimer.
"It is clear that a major portion of the injury accidents occurring on our roads are related to ‘distracted driving.’ SMPD is in favor of any measures that would strengthen the impact of our battle against distracted driving, and make our streets and communities safer,” she wrote in an email to the Daily Journal.
Bill Silverfarb can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.