Teens in the trunk? Get out

Times Staff Writer

If you plan to challenge the skinhead in the next lane to a street race, apply for a disabled driver placard or put a pal in the trunk, there are a few things from the California Legislature that you may want to consider.

Lawmakers have been busy this year with a bunch of new laws that address those driving-related issues and many others. It may be hard to imagine, but the Legislature passed 145 changes -- about one for every other business day -- to the California Vehicle Code, most of which go into effect Monday.

The emerging teenage passion for putting a friend in the trunk -- known as “trunking” -- has caught the eye of legislators. They passed AB 1850, which makes the practice an infraction. The popularity of trunk riding is at least partly a response to graduated licensing laws that restrict teenage drivers from having other occupants in the vehicle.

So, clever or not, teenage drivers have been stuffing their pals in the trunk, out of sight of police. But it’s risky, as demonstrated by a number of crashes in which teens in trunks have died when they were ejected on impact.


Street racing is another serious safety issue that received more attention in the last year. The law, created under AB 2190, would subject first-time offenders to fines of up to $1,000 and jail time of up to six months. If the race causes an injury to another person, jail time increases to up to one year.

The law reflects broad concern among law enforcement officials that illegal street racing is growing sharply, as reflected in a 2004 Justice Department study. An Internet search of the term “street racing” generates 23 million hits, including promotional websites for almost every major U.S. city.

I think the law could be tougher. I’d like to see monster fines on drivers exceeding the speed limit by more than 50 miles per hour in any speed zone, regardless of whether or not they are racing. A $5,000 fine might discourage extreme speeding. Many people would view a $1,000 or less fine as an affordable tax on a prized hobby.

If you have problems walking and want to get a disabled driver placard, the Legislature has made it easier. Despite growing concern that people are abusing disabled driver placards, AB 2120 will expand the types of healthcare providers who can substantiate a disability that qualifies a person for a placard.


Under existing law, an obviously impaired driver -- for example, one who has lost a leg -- needs only to show up at the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a placard. People with heart disease, lung disease or a condition that significantly limits use of their legs may qualify for a placard or license with a doctor’s certification.

Under AB 2120, a person can now get certification from nurse midwives, nurse practitioners and physician assistants. It’s hard to understand why this was needed, and the sponsor of the bill is no longer in the Legislature to explain.

If the added healthcare providers dramatically expand the number of disabled driver placards and license plates, it could also expand abuse. The placard privileges allow users to park for free at all street parking meters, disregard time limits imposed on some types of parking spaces and, of course, park in specially-designated spaces in parking lots.

Sacramento and other cities around the country have set up special efforts to combat abuse of these placards by people who are not disabled. What’s more, some seriously disabled people have complained that the placards are increasingly being used by people with problems that hardly require special privileges.


The Legislature also, as it does almost every year, passed a new law to stiffen drunk-driving penalties.

Under SB 1756, a driver convicted of a first-time offense who has a blood-alcohol level above .20 would be subject to a mandatory license suspension of 10 months, compared with an existing law that specifies a six-month suspension.

The law focuses on highly intoxicated drivers, a good area of emphasis. At a .20 blood alcohol level, a driver is stumbling drunk. It seems like a smart move to put the emphasis on combating the high-risk drunk drivers.

Beyond these four examples, the laws reach in many directions.


For example, AB 2169 extends a program that allows the use of alternative home addresses for victims of spousal abuse. AB 2191 addresses privacy concerns, prohibiting computer vendors and vehicle manufacturers from accessing personal information that is stored on the computer of vehicle dealers.

And SB 1613, which I wrote about earlier this year, will ban hand-held cellphones by drivers in July 2008. So drivers still have another year and a half to gab away on the phone stuck next to their ear, before having to get a hands-free system.