Hands-Free Cell Phone Bill Clears Assembly Committee

Times Staff Writer

A bill to ban drivers from using hand-held cell phones cleared an Assembly committee Monday that has killed similar bills in the last two years.

The third time proved the charm for Assemblyman Joe Simitian, (D-Palo Alto), whose legislation would make California the second state after New York to require drivers to use hands-free cellular phones.

Under Simitian's bill, AB 45, those caught driving and holding a cell phone would face a $20 fine and a black mark of one point on their driving record.

Simitian called the bill a simple move to save lives. It does not ban drivers from talking on cell phones, he says, but ensures that in an emergency both of their hands are free to control the steering wheel. The small earpiece and wires that convert a hand-held phone into a hands-free phone typically cost less than $20.

"My question to you, members, is when this week goes by and another half-dozen people have lost their lives unnecessarily, how will you feel about the vote you cast today?" Simitian told the Assembly Transportation Committee. "I hope you'll feel good about the vote, know that we acted sooner rather than later and put an end to unnecessary deaths on California highways."

The bill passed 14 to 5. Republicans rejected it except for Assemblyman Tim Leslie of Tahoe City, who voted for it, and Todd Spitzer of Orange, who abstained after arguing in favor of a more general law against inattentive driving.

Some Republicans called the bill an erosion of personal freedom.

"Not every phone is a hazard in the hands of every single driver," said Assemblyman John Benoit, (R-Palm Desert).

The bill has a long journey yet through the Legislature before it could reach the governor. But it has already made it farther than four similar bills since 1997.

Simitian's two previous versions of such a ban died in the Assembly Transportation Committee in 2001 and 2002 by a single vote.

His success in the Assembly Transportation Committee comes a week after the California Highway Patrol recommended that the Legislature consider requiring drivers to use only hands-free cell phones. The recommendation came in a report ordered by the Legislature in 2001 in which the CHP studied 491,000 accidents over six months.

Of the 5,600 accidents attributed to distracted drivers, 11% were blamed on cellular phones, making them the leading cause of distracted-driver accidents.

CHP Commissioner Dwight O. "Spike" Helmick has said he supports Simitian's bill, which would exempt emergency calls and be phased in over two years.

The bill has also been endorsed by cell phone service provider Verizon Wireless.

But the rest of the industry opposes the bill. Lobbyists for Cingular Wireless, Sprint, Nextel and T-Mobile urged lawmakers to instead make inattentive driving an infraction, allowing police to cite drivers distracted by pets, children, the radio, food or conversation in addition to wireless telephones.

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