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If April Was Expensive For Distracted Drivers, New Bill Would Make It Even More So

State Sen. Joe Simitian's bill to increase cell phone and texting fine by $30 clears the Senate and heads to the Assembly.

April marked the month that drivers who can't keep their hands off their cellphones were intensively targeted by law enforcement—to the tune of about $159 each, in ticket and court fees.

Without a full complement of traffic officers, Los Altos police ticketed only about a dozen drivers over the first two days of the month under the National Distracted Driving Awareness crackdown, according to Sgt. Paul Arguelles. In the same period, the California Highway Patrol issued 979 tickets across the nine Bay Area counties, plus Santa Cruz and San Benito counties. 

Perhaps, it's only a matter of time before it gets even more expensive.

Now the legislator who brought us the first distracted driving law in the state is working to make it an even greater deterrent to text or hold a mobile device while driving. State Sen. Joe Simitian's bill, SB 28, which cleared the Senate Monday, would increase the fine by $30.

The increase—from $20-$50—is modest, according to Simitian. It's the multiplier effect of local court fees and penalties that give it the hefty bite. That would make the final cost increase from an average of $159 to an average of $309 a ticket, more or less, depending on the county. A second offense would carry a fine of $100 and end up costing more than $500 with fees. 

The bill specifically includes bicycle riders, and it directs $10 of the $30 increase to go toward public awareness education. 

"I introduced it, because I believe it will save lives," Simitian said Monday.

He is the author of the original "hands-free" and texting laws in California, which went into effect in July 2008 and January 2009 respectively. He also is responsible for the 2008 law that prohibits drivers under 18 from using a mobile device while driving, even if equipped to be hands-free. 

But hey, he said, it's not just him; it's the constituents of his district, which includes Los Altos and Los Altos Hills and stretches from San Carlos to Capitola. Simitian points to his popular contest, "There Oughta Be a Law," which encourages residents to suggest potential laws to address common problems.

Increasing the fines was the single-most suggested law, in the automobile category, Simitian said, and, "People wanted more—they wanted jail time, phones confiscated." 

Simitian cited the CHP's data from the first year of the hands-free law, which shows a 20 percent reduction in fatalities and collisions in California, compared with the annual average over the previous three to five years. That meant an estimated 700 fewer fatalities and 75,000-100,000 fewer collisions each year.

Since then, the latest survey by the Automobile Club of Southern California shows hand-held cellphone use was about 60 percent lower than before the state cellphone law went into effect in July 2008.  That's quite gratifying, Simitian said.

It's a different story with texting. After an initial drop, texting while driving appeared to rise back to the same level more than a year after the ban went into effect, according to a study released last year by the automobile club. The organization had recommended rethinking strategies for more effective enforcement, and stiffer penalties. It supported Simitian's attempt to pass a bill with increased penalties last year.

That bill cleared the Assembly Transportation Committee and stalled in the Appropriations Committee, Simitian said. This year's version, which passed the Senate by a 2-to-1 margin of 24-12, is better positioned for passage, he said. The Assembly has until September to pass it in this session.

Awareness will grow through repeated efforts over a period of time, he added, noting that he introduced the first hands-free cellphone legislation six years before it eventually passed. That's why he's reintroduced the bill for stiffer fines.

"It's worth another effort," he said. 

"Seven hundred fewer fatalities means a couple more people each day of the year who are going to come home and sit down with their families than did before." 

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