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California bans driving while holding a cell phone

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

September 15, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - 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."

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