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Hands on the wheel

On New Year’s Day, it became illegal to text message while driving in California. Jaime Coffee, an information officer with the California Highway Patrol, talked with The Times concerning ways the new law may be put to the test. Here’s an edited transcript.

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What are the penalties for texting while driving?

They are similar to the cellphone law that went into effect July 1, 2008. The base fine for a first violation is $20; subsequent violations are $50. However, the total cost of the citation will be significantly higher than the base fine with the addition of local court costs and program fees. The exact penalty varies from county to county.

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Is it illegal to send an e-mail from your mobile device while driving?

Yes.

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Is it illegal to read texts and e-mails that you receive while driving?

Yes. Composing, sending or reading while operating a vehicle on public roadways is illegal.

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If you are texting a company or website, such as MLB.com, as opposed to a person, is it still illegal to text while driving?

Technically speaking . . . if the text-based communication is not going to another “person,” you’re not in violation. The new law addresses two-way communication. However, we don’t encourage or condone any activity that could place you in jeopardy or harm’s way. If sending this message causes the driver to become distracted and affects the safe operation of the vehicle, an officer can pull the driver over and cite for unsafe operation of a motor vehicle.

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Can you text while sitting at a red light?

No. If you are stopped at a light or a stop sign, you are still in control of that vehicle and need to be able to react.

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If you are sitting in a traffic jam and your car is not moving, is it illegal to text while driving?

Yes, it is still illegal.

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What about if you have parked your car?

Since you are legally parked, you can send your text.

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If you have a service that allows you to recite text messages that are entered into the phone by voice recognition software, is that illegal to use?

Technically you’re hands-free, so you’d be OK.

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Is it illegal to type directions into a digital map or GPS program on your phone while driving?

No. The law does not say you can’t type directions into a map or GPS program on your phone.

Is it illegal to read those directions?

No. However, we do not recommend that you do this.

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Is it illegal to browse the Web while driving?

Yes. A person may not drive a motor vehicle if a television receiver, a video monitor or a television or video screen, or any other similar means of visually displaying a television broadcast or video signal that produces entertainment or business applications, is operating and is located in the motor vehicle at any point forward of the back of the driver’s seat, or is operating and visible to the driver while driving the motor vehicle.

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If you get in an accident while texting while driving, are the penalties harsher?

The penalty for violating that law remains the same. However, if your texting contributed to the collision, the officer could charge you with a host of other violations, including reckless driving, unsafe speed for conditions, etc.

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Is it illegal to text while driving a motorcycle or a bicycle?

A motorcycle has a motor, so it would be illegal to text while driving a motorcycle. A bike doesn’t have a motor, therefore it is not illegal. But if you’re riding a bicycle, you should be paying attention to your surroundings.

-- Alana Semuels


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