We’ve written before about the dangers of turning your car into a mobile work station. A driver’s risk of collision quadruples when speaking on the phone, and skyrockets if he’s texting or typing on a handheld device. Coasting on the success of California’s 2008 hands-free phone law, State Senator Joe Simitian has announced plans to increase the penalty for texting violations. Earlier this week, the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee approved the measure.
The Palo Alto democrat’s bill would increase fines to $50 for the first offense, and $100 for repeated infractions, up from $20 and $50 respectively. Including additional fees, that could mean a total fine of $455 for a repeat offense, according to an analysis by the San Francisco Chronicle. Simitian’s bill also states that each incident would add a point to the driver’s record. If a driver receives four or more points in a year, the DMV can confiscate his license.
Simitian’s research shows that cell phone-related collisions dropped more than fifty percent in the first six months after the initial ban was implemented in 2008, compared to the six months before. And deaths resulting from such collisions dropped more than 20 percent below the same six month period in each of the five previous years. “While I think compliance is pretty good, there’s room to save even more lives and avoid even more collisions,” said Simitian.
Disputing the ban’s success, a recent report (pdf) by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found “no notable change” in cell phone-related accidents compared to a set of Western states that had not implemented the ban. But common sense favors Simitian’s explanation; if a driver is writing a text message, he can’t possibly give the road his full attention, and is more likely to be caught off guard by sudden traffic changes.
Simitian also targets cyclists who use cell phones while biking. The proposed fines for cyclists mirror existing automotive penalties: $20 for the first offense and $50 for repeated offenses, without the additional fees. The California Bicycle Coalition says it supports the new law, as long as cyclist fines remain less severe than drivers’. “There’s plenty of evidence…that anyone who uses a cell phone is significantly impaired or distracted,” the group’s spokesman Jim Brown said. “That doesn’t change if you’re walking down the street, driving a car or riding a bicycle.”
Following Brown’s logic, one can’t help but wonder how far texting laws will escalate. One federal law already fines truck and bus drivers nearly $3,000 for texting while driving nationwide. As it stands, only a handful of states have succeeded in restricting handheld communication on the road. Last July, a group of democratic senators began pushing for a nationwide hands-free phone law. But the initiative has stalled due to lack of a strong implementation strategy. If it picks back up, expect a battle between safety advocates and champions of states’ rights. Whatever happens, we’ll keep you updated.
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