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No hands on cellphones is only half the battle

Times Staff Writer

On July 1, after a nearly two-year grace period, a new era begins in California: holding a cellphone to your ear and jabbering away while driving will be illegal unless it’s an emergency.

In most cases, you will still be able to talk-and-drive, but you will need a hands-free device. Not surprisingly, the same cellphone companies that lobbied against the laws are now offering up a variety of “solutions” to help consumers go hands-free.

Isn’t democracy great?

Here’s a quick guide to the new hands-free laws . . .

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What exactly do the laws say?

If you’re 18 or older, you are prohibited from holding a phone and talking while driving. If you’re 16 or 17, the only time you can use a cellphone at all while driving is in an emergency.

The first offense will result in a $20 ticket, and subsequent citations are $50 apiece. But with court costs and penalties, the true costs of those tickets are $76 and $190, respectively.

Something else to chew on: The new laws go into effect just days before the California Highway Patrol goes on “maximum patrol” throughout the Fourth of July weekend. That means 80% of CHP officers will have their eyes on the road. And on you and your cellphone.

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If it’s illegal to hold a phone, how is it possible to dial it or take a call, even if you talk hands-free?

This is where things get tricky, because the laws are silent on both counts.

As it turns out, you are allowed to touch the phone to make a call or take one, said Mike Marando, a spokesman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles. “As long as you don’t hold the phone to carry the conversation,” he added.

Obviously, text messaging will be illegal, right?

Wrong! Texting will be illegal only for 16- and 17-year-old drivers. The law that covers adults is, again, silent on the issue.

This, of course, is slightly unsettling because holding a phone to the ear requires only one hand, whereas typing “what are you wearing?” to your sweetie requires pretty good thumb-eye coordination, at least for most people (so I’m told).

State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who wrote the bills that resulted in the hand-held phone ban, said he didn’t include a text messaging ban because it was difficult enough to get the hands-free laws passed by the Legislature. He succeeded only after five years of trying.

“I didn’t want to risk the whole bill by pushing one step too far,” Simitian said in an interview.

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But Tom Marshall, a CHP spokesman, said, “If you are text messaging and we see it’s affecting your driving, we can still pull you over” for distracted driving.

But the offense is not distracted driving or, for example, driving with a bag of French fries in your lap.

Police actually cite you for what happens as a result of being inattentive, such as impeding traffic or an improper lane change.

Will getting a ticket for talking on a cellphone result in a higher insurance rate for motorists?

No. But there’s a chance it could eventually.

Cellphone violations won’t result in any points being tacked onto your driving record -- insurance carriers use those points to determine if you’re a good or bad driver. But the tickets are still on your driving record.

Darrel Ng, a spokesman for the California Department of Insurance, said that in the future, carriers might apply to the state to use tickets when setting rates, although they’d likely have to prove a correlation between getting those tickets and accident rates.

What other states have similar laws, and how are those working out?

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New York was the first state to institute a hand-held ban, beginning in 2001, and Connecticut and New Jersey have followed suit.

From 2001 through 2006, police in New York issued 976,725 citations to motorists for holding their phones while driving.

Even more interesting, the number of citations has increased each year, with 285,684 tickets being given in 2006, the latest year for which numbers are available.

With more than 11.3 million licensed drivers in New York, it’s probably safe to assume that an awful lot of people are not getting caught.

What are some ways to comply with the laws without spending gobs of money?

First and foremost, learn how to use the voice recognition system that comes with most cellphones. Voice recognition usually requires users to touch only one button and then say a person’s name to make a call.

Surely the much talked-about Apple iPhone, which starts at $399, comes with voice recognition?

No, it doesn’t. And an Apple spokeswoman last week wouldn’t tell me if voice recognition would be included in next month’s software update or future models of the phone. It is a feature you can get with a BlackBerry phone.

What are some other ways to go hands-free?

There’s no shortage of gizmos out there. Here are three easy ways to be a good citizen:

Buy a cheap cellphone cradle that mounts to a vehicle’s dashboard. A conversation can then be carried on using the phone’s speakerphone function. Cost: $15 and under at automotive stores.

Tip: If your vehicle’s stereo system has an auxiliary jack, you can play your phone through the vehicle’s speakers, which makes it easier to hear.

Use a headset. Most phones come with an earpiece or you can easily upgrade to a wireless headset that synchs with a phone.

Wireless headsets typically cost between $30 and $120, and many are available. Before purchasing, be sure you’re comfortable appearing as: a) a crazy person muttering to himself, and b) an extra who has wandered off the “Star Trek” set.

That said, I tried a $35 model last week and kind of liked it. Wireless headsets are also great when walking the dog, although Sammy the yellow Lab couldn’t figure out why I was talking to the mailbox.

Use a wireless speaker. These mouse-sized devices can be clipped to a sun visor and are a lesser-known alternative to the wireless earpiece. Motorola and Parrot are two prominent manufacturers.

And now the really big question: Will the roads be safer?

Studies over the last decade have produced mixed results. Some have found that it’s the conversation, not the phone, that distracts drivers.

On the other hand, a recent report from the California Public Policy Institute predicted that the laws could save hundreds of lives each year.

A lot of readers have shared their opinions with me, and most support the laws -- I’ll be getting to those in future articles. But we’ll give today’s last word to Simitian, who got the laws passed.

“There isn’t a study in the world,” he said, “that says you’re safer clutching a cellphone to your ear than you are when you have both hands on the wheel.”

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steve.hymon@latimes.com


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