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Hands-free phone law goes into effect today

Posted: July 1, 2008 1:36 a.m.
Updated: September 1, 2008 5:01 a.m.
The days of simultaneously chatting on a cellphone and driving a vehicle formally became history today in California. Unless, of course, you have a hands-free earpiece.

Today, the state's new wireless telephone law officially went into effect, restricting the use of mobile phones while driving. Under the new law, using a cellphone without an earpiece is enough to get you pulled over.

Local drivers should expect no leniency in enforcement of the new hands-free laws, according to officials with the California Highway Patrol and the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station.

"There is no so-called grace period," sheriff's Sgt. Darren Harris said. "Deputies will treat it like any other infraction."

Harris added safety was the reason why the laws were enacted to begin with, so there was no need to have a grace period.

"It's a safety issue," he said. "We want to keep our roadways safe."

Officer Michelle Esposito agreed and said that the CHP will enforce the law immediately.

"People have known about this law since the beginning of the year," she said. "We'll be fully enforcing this law from day one."

Harris and Esposito were referring to two new laws passed last year by the state legislature, specifically limiting the way mobile phones are used by drivers. As of today, drivers will no longer be allowed operate a vehicle while holding a mobile phone to their ear. Instead, motorists must use hands-free technology or pull over to the side of the road.

One of those laws is specifically targeted toward drivers age 18 and under, while the other law affects everyone else.

Both laws, which are state Vehicle Code sections 23123 and 23124, went into effect at 12:01 a.m. this morning.

Under section 23123, all drivers are prohibited "from using a handheld wireless telephone while operating a motor vehicle." That section, however, does allow drivers over the age of 18 to use a "hands-free device," such as an earpiece or speakerphone. Also legal are vehicles that have an auxiliary input to run a phone through the vehicle stereo system.

The laws do not specifically prohibit dialing, according to a reading of the vehicle code. If a driver relies on an earpiece, he may only use it in one ear. Both ears cannot be covered under either of the new laws.
Section 23124 is the more restrictive law. Under that section, drivers under the age of 18 are prohibited from using any kind of mobile phone - even hands-free attachments.

As with any law, the two new vehicle code sections come with exceptions and penalties.

There is one exception and one exemption under the new laws. The exception allows a driver, regardless of age, to use a mobile phone to make emergency calls without relying on hands-free or speakerphone modes. The emergency call exception also applies to drivers under the age of 18.

There are no exceptions for out-of-state drivers. While most states have not enacted similar laws, both laws apply to every driver within the state, regardless of residency.

In terms of penalties, there are several layers of fines.

According to the vehicle code, the base fine for the first offense is $20. For every violation after that, the fine is increased to $50.

However, the state's Uniform Bail and Penalty Schedule increase those base fines to $76 for the first offense, and $190 for every offense after that.

If convicted for a violation of the wireless telephone law, the offense will be placed on the driver's record. However, no violation points will be assessed by the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Neither law specifically prohibits text messaging, though a driver may be cited if an officer or deputy believes that the driver's text messaging impaired their driving.


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