Put your cell phone down and drive — or face the penalties 

For Sara Baldwin, zipping down the freeway at 70 mph doesn’t get in the way of a friendly phone chat — or even a text message.

The Oakland resident says it breaks up her long commute, which involves shuttling her fiancé to work in San Francisco before arriving at her job in Daly City. The 30-year-old human resources manager says she has no illusions that it’s safe, but old habits die hard — she’s been driving with a phone to her ear for 10 years.

"It’s bad, but I still do it," she said. "I think being forced into safety will be a good thing."

On Tuesday, a pair of cell phone laws in California will change the relationship between chatty motorists such as Baldwin and their mobile phones. Adults will be required to use a hands-free device. Those under 18 will be barred from chatting, though an exception will be made for all drivers on private property or during an emergency.

On June 19, a Senate bill was introduced that would ban motorists from typing text messages and e-mails while driving.

"Obviously it’s going to be an adjustment for a lot of people," acknowledged California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Fran Clader. Still, neither the CHP nor Bay Area police departments will be extending a grace period to drivers struggling to change their ways.

The fine for first-time offenders is $20 plus fees — an amount criticized by some for being too lenient. Each additional offense is $50 plus fees, though with additional penalty assessments and court fees, that number could triple, Clader said.

By comparison, motorists in Washington, where a similar law also is going into effect Tuesday, will receive $124 tickets. But while California drivers can be pulled over for holding cell phones to their ears, Washington motorists can only receive a hand-held cell phone ticket as a secondary violation after being caught for another offense, such as speeding.

"To be honest, the fee isn’t a deterrent for me," Baldwin said. "I just don’t want to be pulled over by the police, because if they get me for talking on a cell phone, will they get me for speeding and a couple other things?"

While the ding will show up on a motorist’s driving record, the California Department of Motor Vehicles will not assign a violation point to licenses — a point conceded to opponents of the bills during negotiations, the laws’ author, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, said.

Still, Simitian called the law "a common-sense approach to public safety" and pointed to a new study by the Public Policy Institute of California that predicted the law, despite its low fines, would save 300 lives per year.

The study examined cell phone ownership and traffic fatality rates in California, and analyzed the results of similar hands-free laws in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and the District of Columbia.

tbarak@sfexaminer.com

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