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New Year to Bring Dozens of Vehicle Code Changes

Times Staff Writer

You may want to think again about sipping that third glass of wine or putting an electric scooter under the tree this year.

California lawmakers have passed more than 150 changes to the vehicle code, some of which are designed to toughen drunk driving regulations, clean the air, prompt drivers to pay better attention to traffic signs and limit the use of motorized scooters. Most of the changes take effect Jan. 1.

You already must be at least 16 years old to ride scooters with a gas or electric motor, but in 2005, you’ll also need a driver’s license or learner’s permit. And the new legislation, which gives cities more discretion in regulating scooter use, also prohibits removing or adjusting the vehicle’s muffler to make it louder.

Meanwhile, even those drivers with daytime running lights will have to remember to turn on their vehicle’s headlights whenever it’s too foggy to see 1,000 feet or raining hard enough to require continuous use of the windshield wipers.

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Following are a few of the other changes:

DUI Is Still a Bad Idea

After nearly 20 years of decline, California’s drunk driving rate began rising again in 2000. Fatal crashes involving alcohol are up 16% since then, from 1,094 to 1,272 in 2003, the most recent statistics available.

After 10-year-old Troy Pack and his 7-year-old sister, Alana, of Contra Costa County were fatally struck by a suspected drunk driver while riding their bikes late last year, state Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch) proposed a series of bills intended to curb impaired driving.

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The resulting laws will extend the period that drunk driving convictions remain on a driver’s record from seven to 10 years, and consolidate oversight of revoked and restricted driver’s licenses with the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

The changes mean, in part, that a driver who commits a second offense within 10 years faces the higher penalties applied to repeat offenders.

“It’s about saving lives, and the only way we can do that is if people who drink and drive get the message that it’s a crime that will not be tolerated,” said Tina Pasco, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.

But private defense attorney Kevin DeNoce, who handles nearly 100 DUI cases a year, described the changes as draconian.

“Everybody seems to think there’s never anything wrong with increasing punishments, but you reach a point where the punishment doesn’t fit the crime,” said the former Ventura County assistant prosecutor. “Seven years is long enough. At some point, you have to allow people to get on with their lives.”

Another change is aimed at reducing confusion between the courts and the DMV regarding how long a person loses his or her ability to drive. Effective in September, the DMV will handle all such contact with the driver.

When a driver is arrested on a DUI charge, the officer confiscates his or her driver’s license and gives the driver a notice that the DMV will suspend his or her license for at least four months, beginning in 30 days. After 30 days of suspension, drivers have been allowed to apply to the court for a restricted license allowing them to drive back and forth to work and to treatment classes. The DMV now will process those requests, although judges still will be able to block a restricted license when they feel it would pose a safety risk.

“We thought it would be a cleaner system and easier to understand,” said Tom Weibel, an assistant legislative officer for the DMV. “This is likely to make a driver feel less like he’s getting mixed messages.”

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Clearer Skies Ahead

As part of a deal Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger brokered with lawmakers, owners of cars 6 years old or less won’t have to spend $50 for smog tests every two years. Currently, the waiver only applies to cars up to 4 years old. The trade-off is that the smog-abatement fee those owners pay will double from $6 to $12.

The shift is expected to raise about $60 million to help fund a program to subsidize the replacement of heavy-duty diesel engines, such as those in old school buses, trains, trucks and agricultural equipment.

In addition, those who buy a used car no more than 4 years old will be able to skip a smog check when the title changes hands. Instead, they will pay an $8 transfer of ownership fee.

Don’t Answer That

It will become an infraction for drivers of school or transit buses to use a cellphone while driving, except during an emergency. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has long had a policy prohibiting its 5,000 bus operators from talking on cellphones while driving. And the Los Angeles Unified School District added a similar prohibition to its procedures manual three years ago.

Meanwhile, a bill that would have allowed only hands-free cellphone use by all motorists failed to get out of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Follow the Signs

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Another piece of “How did they miss that?” legislation comes from Assemblyman John Benoit (R-Palm Desert), a former California Highway Patrol officer.

It seems that some of the black-and-white regulatory signs you see everywhere, such as “Daytime headlight area” or “Road closed to through traffic,” aren’t specifically tied to vehicle code sections or to local traffic ordinances, making enforcement difficult. “We just wanted to get that loophole closed,” said Todd Moffitt, the assemblyman’s legislative director. “To the average motorist, there will be no change at all. Just obey the signs and you’ll be fine.”

Help on the Home Front

The DMV will be required to waive penalties that build up for late payment of vehicle registration fees for members of the armed forces or National Guard on active duty, provided that the serviceman or woman renews the registration within 60 days of returning home. A DMV spokesman said such penalties are almost always waived now, but the law will guarantee it.


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