California bans driving while holding a cell phone

It goes into effect in '08; Schwarzenegger says hang up now

California today became the fourth state to ban motorists from holding cell phones while driving, moving the issue of driver distraction to the forefront of the national agenda.

In a live webcast, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law legislation that passed in the California Assembly last month. The measure goes into effect in July 2008, imposing a minimum $20 fine for anyone caught driving and using a cell phone unless the driver uses a headset, ear bud or other technology that frees both hands.

Emergency situations are exempt.

New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., have similar laws, but California is a large state and is seen as a trend-setter in consumer and technology legislation, observers and analysts said. More than 35 states considered bills affecting driver distractions, including cell phones, this year, according to Schwarzenegger's office.

Many cell phone makers and cellular network providers have opposed such laws, but Palm Inc. today declared "enthusiastic support" of the California move. Palm makes Treo smart phones and had urged the governor to sign the bill for public safety reasons, said Joe Fabris, director of wireless solutions at Palm, in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Fabris said Palm is the only cell phone maker to publicly back the bill, although Verizon Wireless, a carrier, supported it from the start as well. "Certain makers and carriers are for it or against it, but we happen to feel the data is there that this law can reduce distractions," Fabris said. He went on to say that many things can distract drivers, including simply talking on the phone or turning the radio dial. But requiring a hands-free device will remove at least one distraction.

Some automakers are already selling kits to make it easy to voice-activate a call, and various technologies will eventually be so widespread that such a law might not be needed, Fabris said.

Fabris said he expects many states to follow California's lead. "California is often put forward as a leader with legislation," he said, noting that Palm is active in Europe where such laws have long been in place.

The CTIA, a Washington-based industry group of cellular technology manufacturers and carriers, opposes such legislation, according to its Web site. Various safety officials and lawmakers "have all concurred that such legislation is ineffective, most likely has a negligible impact on safety and obscures the greater issue of driver distraction," the group says on its site. "In addition, law enforcement officers in all 50 states already have the ability to cite drivers for reckless or inattentive driving."

The CTIA cited government statistics and research studies to argue that "the focus on wireless phone use while driving is well off point. ... Every state that currently reports crash data (California, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Tennessee) shows that wireless phone use is a factor in less than 1% of accidents. Furthermore, a report published in 2004 by the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, finds wireless phone bans to have no significant impact on accidents."

CTIA officials could not be reached for comment today.

Jack Gold, a wireless analyst for J. Gold Associates in Northboro, Mass, predicted that the CTIA's position "won't hold up much longer because it goes against the tide and makes no sense. It's insane what people do when they drive and talk on their phones. I'd venture to say a majority of states will put measures on their book in a few years."

Many companies in recent years have recommended to their workers that they use hands-free devices while talking on a cell phone and driving, regardless of the law. But some IT managers doubt the advice is being followed by all workers.

"I think it's pretty widespread that people ignore that company advice," said Geoff Caras, vice president of system infrastructure for Shop.com in Monterey, Calif. He was offering his own opinion, not the views of his company.

Caras said nobody at his company has told him to use a hands-free device, and argued that many companies are probably issuing the advice only to reduce their liability and make their insurers happy. As for the California law, Caras said, "I'm on the fence about whether a law is needed. I think we all have seen a guy driving slow in the fast lane, only to pass him and see he's holding a cell phone to his ear. But on the other hand, I've personally called 911 when I saw an accident and held the phone to do it."

Caras said for truck drivers in service fleets and others who drive all the time, a hands-free technology, whether for voice or data, is "absolutely crucial" and something he'd like to see universally.

In a July online interview, Schwarzenegger said he had warned his 16-year-old daughter about driving with her cell phone in hand. He said she would lose her driving privileges if he caught her doing so.

Even though the bill takes effect in 2008, the governor in the signing ceremony urged drivers to "stop using them now. You are putting people at risk. You could kill [a] child just because you were looking down at your phone."

The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, praised Verizon Wireless and Palm for their support. He said he had introduced the measure six times before succeeding, "simply because it will save people's lives."

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