Is California’s Cell Phone Law “Hands-Free” or “Logic Free?”

Since 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, July 1, 2008 the California Vehicle Code (CVC) mandates that all drivers use a “hands-free” device when driving and talking on a cellular phone.  The state actually passed two laws which are now active as Section 23123 and Section 23124 of the CVC.

According to the new laws, drivers caught talking on a hand-held cell phone will be subject to fines of $20 for the first ticket and $50 for subsequent tickets. Additional fees can potentially more than triple the fine — I have heard that the average first ticket will cost $76!

One silver lining in this dark cloud: although the infraction will appear on your driving record the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) will not assign you a violation point.

Below is an instructional video about the news laws followed by Q & A about them (courtesy of the DMV):

Q: When do the new wireless telephone laws take effect?
A: The new laws take effect July 1, 2008.

Q: What is the difference between the two laws?
A: The first prohibits all drivers from using a handheld wireless telephone while operating a motor vehicle, (Vehicle Code (VC) §23123). Motorists 18 and over may use a “hands-free device.” Drivers under the age of 18 may NOT use a wireless telephone or hands-free device while operating a motor vehicle (VC §23124).

Q: What if I need to use my telephone during an emergency, and I do not have a “hands-free” device?
A: The law allows a driver to use a wireless telephone to make emergency calls to a law enforcement agency, a medical provider, the fire department, or other emergency services agency.

Q: What are the fines(s) if I’m convicted?
A: The base fine for the FIRST offense is $20 and $50 for subsequent convictions. With the addition of penalty assessments, the fines can be more than triple the base fine amount.

Q: Will I receive a point on my driver license if I’m convicted for a violation of the wireless telephone law?
A: No. The violation is a reportable offense, however, DMV will not assign a violation point.

Q: Will the conviction appear on my driving record?
A: Yes, but the violation point will not be added.

Q: Will there be a grace period when motorists will only get a warning?
A: No. The law becomes effective July 1, 2008. Whether a citation is issued is always at the discretion of the officer based upon his or her determination of the most appropriate remedy for the situation.

Q: Are passengers affected by this law?
A: No. This law only applies to the person driving a motor vehicle.

Q: Do these laws apply to out-of-state drivers whose home states do not have such laws?
A: Yes.

Q: Can I be pulled over by a law enforcement officer for using my handheld wireless telephone?
A: Yes. A law enforcement officer can pull you over just for this infraction.

Q: What if my phone has a push-to-talk feature, can I use that?
A: No. The law does provide an exception for those operating a commercial motor truck or truck tractor (excluding pickups), implements of husbandry, farm vehicle or tow truck, to use a two-way radio operated by a “push-to-talk” feature. However, a push-to-talk feature attached to a hands-free ear piece or other hands-free device is acceptable.

Q: What other exceptions are there?
A: Operators of an authorized emergency vehicle during the course of employment are exempt, as are those motorists operating a vehicle on private property.

 

Drivers 18 and Over

Drivers 18 and over will be allowed to use a “hands-free” device to talk on their wireless telephone while driving. The following FAQs apply to those motorists 18 and over.

Q: Does the new “hands-free” law prohibit you from dialing a wireless telephone while driving or just talking on it?
A: The new law does not prohibit dialing, but drivers are strongly urged not to dial while driving.

Q: Will it be legal to use a Bluetooth or other earpiece?
A: Yes, however you cannot have BOTH ears covered.

Q: Does the new “hands-free” law allow you to use the speaker phone function of your wireless telephone while driving?
A: Yes.

Q: Does the new “hands-free” law allow drivers 18 and over to text message while driving?
A: The law does not specifically prohibit that, but an officer can pull over and issue a citation to a driver of any age if, in the officer’s opinion, the driver was distracted and not operating the vehicle safely. Sending text messages while driving is unsafe at any speed and is strongly discouraged.

Drivers Under 18

Q: Am I allowed to use my wireless telephone “hands-free?”
A: No. Drivers under the age of 18 may not use a wireless telephone, pager, laptop or any other electronic communication or mobile services device to speak or text while driving in any manner, even “hands-free.” EXCEPTION: Permitted in emergency situations to call police, fire or medical authorities (VC §23124).

Q: Why is the law stricter for provisional drivers?
A: Statistics show that teen drivers are more likely than older drivers to be involved in crashes because they lack driving experience and tend to take greater risks. Teen drivers are vulnerable to driving distractions such as talking with passengers, eating or drinking, and talking or texting on wireless devices, which increase the chance of getting involved in serious vehicle crashes.

Q: Can my parents give me permission to allow me to use my wireless telephone while driving?
A: No. The only exception is an emergency situation that requires you to call a law enforcement agency, a health care provider, the fire department or other emergency agency entity.

Q: Does the law apply to me if I’m an emancipated minor?
A: Yes. The restriction applies to all licensed drivers who are under the age of 18.

Q: If I have my parent(s) or someone age 25 years or older in the car with me, may I use my wireless telephone while driving?
A: No. You may only use your wireless telephone in an emergency situation.

Q: Will the restriction appear on my provisional license?
A: No.

Q: May I use the hands-free feature while driving if my car has the feature built in?
A: No. The law prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from using any type of wireless device while driving, except in an emergency situation.

Q: Can a law enforcement officer stop me for using my “hands-free” device while driving?
A: For drivers under the age of 18, this is considered a SECONDARY violation meaning that a law enforcement officer may cite you for using a “hands-free” wireless device if you were pulled over for another violation. However, the prohibition against using a handheld wireless device while driving is a PRIMARY violation for which a law enforcement officer can pull you over.

It is hoped the laws will reduce distractions to drivers, thereby mitigating the 4,000 traffic accident deaths that occur in the state each year.

A study released by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute documented 80 percent of accidents are caused by driver distraction, and 65 percent of near-crashes resulted from driver inattention three seconds before the event. The Public Policy Institute of California anticipates 300 fewer traffic fatalities annually once these new laws take effect.

Yet, there remains great debate as to how much using a hands-free device improves your ability to pay attention to the road beyond what you would experience by simply holding the phone to your ear.

In a June 28, 2008 a Daily Breeze article, California State University, Dominguez Hills psychology professor Larry Rosen, a specialist in the psychology of technology, is quoted as follows:

“Hands-free phones are no safer than handheld – it’s all an issue of cognitive load, or brain power. If you talk to somebody on a phone, you only get a limited number of cues, as opposed to looking at someone when you can see their demeanor, their facial expressions. When you don’t have those cues, your brain has to work hard to fill them in and having to work extra hard means you’ll be paying little attention to the road.”

Additionally, as reported in a July 2, 2008 Daily News article, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University discovered listening to a conversation while driving reduces brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent!

So, as was echoed in the quote by professor Rosen (above), it’s not how you are talking on your cell phone that matters — it’s the fact that you are talking on your cell phone. You could have two extra hands on the wheel while wearing your headset and still drive like an idiot.

That being said, I think using a headset is a nice option while you are in the car — though I think it actually has the opposite effect: it makes me want to talk more. I find myself more engaged in the conversation because I don’t have to think about holding the phone. I am unsure if I am in the normal or abnormal category for this issue, but it is how I feel.

For nearly the past month I have been using the Plantronics Explorer 350 with my Palm Centro — mostly as I drove to and from DeVry University in Bakersfield, but also around town on short errands. It works very well and it is reasonably comfortable. I like it because it sits in my ear, making it easier to hear the person with whom I am speaking.

I recommend this device to anyone looking for a Bluetooth headset. I do, however, not recommend wearing it outside of your car — you can get away with looking like a dork/Borg from Star Trek in your car, but once you are outside of it, the same cannot be said!

I initially tried a Motorola H500, but either the unit I had was defective or the design doesn’t suit me — becasue I could almost never hear anyone whether I was at highway speeds or even on side streets.

In any case, the results of this new law remain to be seen, but if it has the same effect as most other laws related to driving — or even most laws for that matter — I doubt it will have much of an impact beyond generating additional revenue for the state that can get misappropriated.

I am encouraged by the portion of the law dealing with drivers under 18, as that seems to make the most sense: completely outlawing the use of cell phones while driving is the only way to (at least legally) ensure that drivers are no longer distracted by them.

At the same time I am a realist: making something illegal does little to prevent someone determined to do it from doing it.  I also know that if you aren’t distracted by your cell phone while driving there are plenty of other things to do the job: kids, pets, people, iPods,  the stereo, makeup, food — the list goes on. I once even saw a woman reading a book while driving down the 405 Freeway Southbound in the Sepulveda pass!

But, if you live in California, it is now law, so unless you want to waste a lot of money you need to “get assimilated” and find yourself an earpiece that works for you. Just look at the bright side: now you will have an extra hand free so you can hold your coffee and your breakfast burrito while talking on the phone!