Bill: No cell use by teen drivers

Times Staff Writers

sacramento -- Citing a fistful of studies that show teenagers among the most distracted and dangerous of drivers, the state Assembly on Monday passed a bill that would prohibit drivers under the age of 18 from using a cellphone, pager, text-messaging device or laptop while driving.

The bill passed by a 62-5 vote, with Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia (R-Cathedral City) noting that teenagers make up 6% of licensed drivers but 16% of auto accident fatalities.

“On average we are losing 17 kids a day across the United States due to fatalities in which distraction was involved,” Garcia said.


The bill, previously approved by the state Senate, goes back there for expected final approval of amendments before it is placed on the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has not decided yet whether he will sign or veto it, officials said.

Opponents of the measure, including Assemblyman Alan Nakanishi (R-Lodi), saw it as another effort at creating a “nanny government.”

“The parents should have the responsibility, not the state,” he said. “There are other things like CDs that are also an issue and it’s very difficult to enforce this law.”

Opponents also said there already are laws to prevent distracted and unsafe driving.

Assemblyman Jim Silva (R-Huntington Beach) said he voted against the bill because he has used a hands-free cellphone in his car for more than a decade and does not think it is a distraction.

“I feel that for a young person who is driving, who is responsible, that wouldn’t be a distraction either,” Silva said.

The legislation was introduced by Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who cited a 2001 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that said 16-year-old drivers have a crash rate five times greater than 18-year-olds and almost 10 times greater than drivers between 30 and 59.

Research by Ford Motor Co. found that teen drivers were four times more distracted than adult drivers when each used a cellphone while driving, he said.

Simitian said the National Transportation Safety Board recently put a cellphone ban for young drivers on its “Most Wanted” list of safety recommendations to states.

“I introduced this bill for one simple reason: It will save lives,” said Simitian.

“Year after year, car crashes are the No. 1 cause of death among teenagers. The young drivers who are using cellphones, pagers and PDAs while driving are putting not only themselves at risk, but all of us as well.”

He was optimistic that the governor would sign the legislation, noting that when Schwarzenegger signed a bill last year that will require hands-free cellphones for all drivers by July 1, 2008, “he cited his own experience with his teenage daughter, who he has prohibited from driving while using a cellphone.”

SB 33, which would go into effect on July 1, 2008, prohibits drivers under 18 from using cellphones or any mobile service devices -- including hands-free cellphones -- except in an emergency.

Violators would be assessed a $20 fine for the first offense, and a $50 fine for subsequent offenses, but with no violation point on their driving record.

The bill, although outlawing the use of mobile devices, does not specifically address commercial systems such as Onstar, which allow drivers to communicate with operators to gain information on the mechanical condition of the car and its location.

There have been a slew of recent cellphone-related crashes involving teenagers. In Arizona earlier this month, an 18-year-old teen who was text-messaging on her cellphone while driving was involved in an accident in which she and another driver were killed.

In New York last month, a 17-year-old was using her cellphone to talk and text message while driving an SUV. She slammed head-on into a truck. The teen and four passengers, all recent high school graduates, were killed.

The American Automobile Assn. and Seventeen magazine conducted a survey of 16- and 17-year-old drivers in April and found that 61% admitted to risky driving habits.

Of that 61%, 46% said they sent text messages while driving and 51% said they talked on their cellphones while driving.

The legislation sounds like a good idea to Aida Bagdasaryan, a 15-year-old from Glendale.

She explained that although she doesn’t drive yet, she has friends who do.

And when those friends use their cellphones while driving, “I don’t feel safe,” she said.

“It’s a huge distraction when you’re paying attention to your cellphone and not the road,” Aida said, while shopping at the Glendale Galleria.

Katherine Felix, 17, of Whittier, agreed.

“There are so many reckless drivers -- especially teens,” Katherine said. “I don’t think you absolutely need to talk to someone to tell them how your day is while you are driving.”

The La Habra High School junior said a friend of hers is constantly texting while driving, using her knees to steer.

“It’s not very safe,” she said. “She is a crazy driver.”

Katharine’s mother, Maria Felix, 45, said she would be relieved to have the proposed bill made law. Maria Felix said she has a rule that her daughter can’t place calls while driving unless it is an emergency.

“We’ve seen the dangers with us and other people,’ she said. “I’ve been on the phone sometimes and I haven’t seen things and have had to stop all of a sudden. It’s scary.”

UCLA student Arian Moreh, 19, who would not be covered by the law, admits he has experienced firsthand how young people can become distracted drivers because of the latest technology.

“Probably I’m one of them,” he said. “But I haven’t got into an accident. I think I’m OK. You’ve just got to be good at it. You’ve got to be talented. I do text while I drive. I think that it’s just part of a routine. As long as I’m being safe it doesn’t matter.”