OMG: Simitian targets kinks in texting, cell phone laws

“I did not come to the California State Legislature thinking I was going to be the highway safety guy,” says Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto.

But what a long, strange trip it’s been for a guy who arrived eleven years ago more focused on traditional Democratic issues like education improvement, health care reform and environmental protection. In car-mad California, Simitian is now the no-handheld-cell-phone-use-while-driving guy, though some irate commuters have been known to pepper these descriptions with words you couldn’t use during National Cuss Free Week. In 2009, one constituent even paid $10,000 for a billboard to complain about Simitian’s law banning talking on a cell phone while driving.

Now Simitian is back for one more bite at the apple. His SB 28 would make a number of technical changes to his prior bills limiting the use of wireless devices while driving. The bill would raise the initial fine for talking on a cellular handset while driving from $20 to $50. With all of the other local fees that are typically involved in getting a ticket, he said, the real cost of a first offense could now jump at high as $300, compared to about $120 today.

It also calls on the DMV to provide driver’s license applicants with information on the dangers of texting and talking on a cell phone while driving, and creates a Distracted Driver Education Fund, funded by the fines, to lead education efforts about the problems of using wireless devices while driving.

The bill gets its first hearing Tuesday in the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. At least one group will be there to oppose it — and the premise behind much of Simitian’s work in the area.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s hands-free or hands-on,” said Matt Gray, lobbyist for Taxpayers for Public Safety.

Gray is pushing Simitian to make an exception in the bill for people who are parked or stopped at a traffic light, as well as allowing texting by emergency personnel. For support, Gray points to recent research out of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety which found that it was the conversation itself, not the act of holding the phone, that was the problem.

“Two studies of crashes using cell phone billing records to verify phone use found about a fourfold increase in crash risk with conversing on both hands-free and hand-held phones,” according to an update posted this month on the group’s website. “They also were unable to determine whether there was any benefit associated with hands-free devices while placing the call. Experimental research using driving simulators indicates that phone conversation tasks, whether using hand-held or hands-free devices, affect some measures of driving performance.”

Which begs the question: if talking is the problem, is talking to a passenger also a risky behavior while driving? Yes, said Gray. But, unless the passenger is blind, there’s an important difference—they provide an extra set of eyes to see road hazards.

Gray claimed the current law doesn’t work, and that the law should address all cell phone use or none. He also raised the possibility that even limited bans on cell phone use while driving may violate First Amendment free speech protections.

“The evidence from that multi-state study shows that California’s anti-cell phone laws for drivers have had a statistically insignificant influence upon the rate and severity of collisions,” Gray wrote in an opposition letter.

Simitian took issue with several of Gray’s points. For starters, he said, the Insurance Institute study was based on collision data, not overall injuries and deaths, and was also based mainly on middle-aged drivers—not the teens who are much of the focus of cell phone and texting legislation.

He also pointed to what happened after his original bill—SB 1613 from 2006, which banned handheld cell phone use while driving—went into effect on July 1, 2008. According to California Highway Patrol records, Simitian said, traffic deaths per mile travelled showed the largest year-to-year drop in over two decades, with about 700 fewer people dying on California roads. Overall collisions dropped by a similar proportion.

“I don’t think anyone can argue credibly that we saw the biggest reduction in collisions in the last 20 year as a matter of coincidence,” Simitian said.

In 2007, Simitian followed up with SB 33, which barred any use of cell phones, hands-free or not, by drivers under 18. The bill, he said, was inspired partially because 16-years-olds have accident rates five times higher than that of 18-year-olds. In 2008, he passed an initial SB 28, which banned texting while driving.

“It’s really remarkable the number of folks who text while driving,” Simitian said.

But Simitian also said that he doesn’t know of any times First Amendments objection has been used successfully against any type of wireless-use-while-driving bill.

If anything, the momentum seems to be gathering nationwide for similar restrictions. Last year, Michigan became the 18th state to enact a law against handheld cell phone use while driving, with fines starting at $100 and jumping to $200 for a second offense. Thirty states ban texting while driving.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, at least 995 people were killed in the U.S. in 2009 by people distracted by cell phones.

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