Cell Phone Driving Ban Tightens Under Golden State’s New Law

Cell phone driver (Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP / Getty)
Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP / Getty

California’s legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown have added yet another layer of regulation to the road, with the passage and Monday signing of a bill that puts further restriction on use of a cell phone while behind the wheel.

AB 1785 prohibits a person from driving “motor vehicle while holding and operating a handheld wireless telephone or an electronic wireless communications device unless the wireless telephone or electronic wireless communications device is specifically designed and configured to allow voice-operated and hands-free operation, and it is used in that manner while driving.”

A small exception is made if a “cell phone” or “wireless communications device” is GPS-style mounted, dashboard mounted, or center console mounted. Then a “single swipe or tap of the driver’s finger” is allowed if “used to activate or deactivate a feature or function of the handheld wireless telephone or wireless communications device.”

The penalty for violating this ban is $20 for a first offense and $50 for each subsequent offense. It is not clear from the bill whether the offense qualifies as a primary or secondary offense. The current law pertaining to using a cell phone to text while driving is a primary offense, according to the Governor’s Highway Safety Administration. The handheld ban is a primary offense for all drivers under current law.

Legislative Counsel’s Digest of the bill also states that it “would impose a state-mandated local program.”

The bill is said to close some loopholes in laws currently on the books, such as taking pictures while driving and shooting streaming video.

There is also an exception for “an emergency services professional using an electronic wireless communications device while operating an authorized emergency vehicle, as defined in Section 165, in the course and scope of his or her duties.”

California has had a ban on texting or listening and talking while driving since 2006 unless a hands-free device was used. In 2013 that was expanded to prohibit anyone younger than 18 from using a cell phone or wireless communications device even with the assistance of a hands-free device.

In 2014 California’s 5th District Court of Appeals ruled that current law only banned holding a wireless telephone while carrying on a conversation on it.

Assembly Transportation Committee analysis of AB 1785 cited the California Department of Motor Vehicles when it stated, “In 2015, there were 12 fatal collisions involving handheld cellphone use as an inattention factor, over 500 injury collisions, and nearly 700 property damage collisions. That same year, California Highway Patrol alone issued over 13,000 citations for violating the ban on writing, sending, or reading text-based communications while driving, and 78,000 citations for using a wireless telephone while driving.”

The analysis goes on to state, “Despite this level of enforcement, a study conducted in the spring of 2015 by the Office of Traffic Safety and UC Berkeley observed 9.2% of motorists using cell phones, up from 6.6% in 2014. To help combat the dangers of distracted driving, the most recent Strategic Highway Safety Plan (SHSP), prepared by the California Department of Transportation, recommends strengthening laws on distracted driving.”

Follow Michelle Moons on Twitter @MichelleDiana