Seeking stiffer fines for drivers on phones

March 29, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
The lawmaker who wrote California's hands-free cellphone laws says too many motorists are ignoring it. He's backing legislation that will make the fines and penalties a lot tougher.

Even though the hands-free law has been around for more than three years, Californians are still breaking the law calling, texting and checking emails on their handheld device while behind the wheel.

"Probably 60 or 70 percent of Californians are complying. That means another 30 to 40 percent of folks out there could do a better job," said California Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto).

Simitian, who wrote the original hands-free law, hopes stiffer fines will get people to change what he calls a dangerous habit.

The fine now on the first offense is $20. But with court fees, the ticket averages $208.

Under the Simitian's bill, it would be $50, which ends up being about $328.

Subsequent offenses are currently $50 with court fees, but would double to $100. That fine balloons to more than $500 when extra fees are added.

"I know the city and the state is hurting right now, but they also have to look out for us. To me, it seems a like it's a little too much," said motorist Vincent Johnson, who opposes higher fines.

"It's a good thing to have a law against it, but I don't think fining people beyond their means will solve it," said another driver who opposes it, Paul Laguer.

Simitian says California Highway Patrol numbers show collisions, when cell phone was factor, have declined. He wants the trend to continue.

But other studies, including one by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, found no difference.

"The reports show very conclusively, very clearly, that the law has absolutely no effect on safety," said Matt Gray of the Taxpayers for Improving Public Safety. "It doesn't matter whether it's hands-free or hands-on, it's the actual discussion that's the distraction."

The numbers were quite different when those same people were asked about seeing other drivers using handheld cellphones while driving.

Seventy percent said regularly, 25 percent said occasionally and four percent said almost never.

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