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Jury out on new law for drivers

While traffic officials applaud a new law that makes it illegal for drivers to read, write or send text messages, they admit there is little evidence that last year’s ban against talking on a hand-held cellphone has actually prevented accidents.

Since holding a phone to your ear was made a traffic violation last July, the California Highway Patrol has written about 48,000 tickets, fining drivers from $20 to $50.

City police and sheriff’s departments across the state have likely written thousands more, officials say, and sometimes charge higher fines. The Santa Monica Police Department issued about 1,200 tickets in 2008.

But just how effective the law has been no one can say, just as they can’t say speeding tickets necessarily keep drivers from stepping too hard on the gas.

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Santa Monica Police Sgt. Larry Horn, who often patrols on a motorcycle, believes the hands-free law has made a difference.

“Six months ago, everywhere I looked someone who was driving was on the phone,” he said. “From the saddle, I’m seeing less people on the phone now.”

Six states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws against using hand-held cellphones while driving and another six states have given local jurisdictions the option of prohibiting it, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

However, it wasn’t hard this week to gather a few scary tales about drivers who appeared to be distracted with a cellphone pressed to one ear.

About three months ago, Laura Silverman said, she was walking through a Vons parking lot in Tarzana when a green SUV “barreled” backward out of its parking space, grazing her slightly. The driver was using a cellphone.

“I wasn’t hurt,” said Silverman, 52, an artist, writer and blogger. “But I said, ‘Why don’t you get off the phone when you’re driving,’ and she looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you get your fat [posterior] out of the way!’ I was a little stunned.”

Traffic safety advocates have long argued that cellphone laws are needed. In 2007, eight people died and 534 suffered some type of injury in crashes where hand-held cellphones were partially to blame, according to the CHP. Those deaths made up only two-tenths of a percent of the state’s traffic fatalities that year.

Still, around the nation there is a paucity of data on the role cellphones have played in crashes.

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Police in New York, the first state to pass a hands-free law, issued 1.28 million tickets for cellphone violations from 2001 to 2008, according to the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles. More than 262,000 citations had been doled out in the state in the first 10 months of 2008.

Though the number of citations in New York has risen each year since the law took effect, so has the number of accidents and injuries in which hand-held cellphones were considered a primary factor, from 174 in 2002 to 415 in 2007.

Police and safety advocates point out that data on such crashes aren’t perfect. Most information is gleaned from motorists involved in crashes and may not be fully accurate -- and police, particularly for minor accidents, often don’t have the time or inclination to investigate.

Still, New York police believe their hands-free law is useful because it discourages something they don’t want people to do. “It’s like speeding or any other violation -- there are so many vehicles out there, it’s a law of averages whether you get caught or not and people are willing to take the chance,” said Lt. Glenn Miner of the New York State Police. “At least there’s a deterrent.”

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Officials with the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety say the deterrent works, but only if law enforcement agencies remain vigilant. The group tried to measure whether cellphone use by drivers had dropped by counting drivers they saw using cellphones in New York and the District of Columbia before and after the hands-free laws were adopted.

Cellphone use initially dropped in both places, then rose again in New York while staying lower in Washington.

“Enactment of the law is just the first step,” said Anne McCartt, the Institute’s senior vice president for research. “Unless the law is enforced and the enforcement is publicized, compliance is hard to achieve.”

McCartt said several studies show that hands-free versus hand-held cellphone use may be a moot point because it’s the distraction of the conversation that’s the real impediment to driving, not how motorists are holding the phone.

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California Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who sponsored the state’s hands-free law, said in an interview this week that he wanted the law to stay in place for some time to see how it worked before making any changes. He said he sees fewer people clutching cellphones on his 120-mile weekly commute to Sacramento. “I also still see people speeding, but I think it’s a good thing we have speed limits,” he said.

Of course, there is a pantheon of distractions that avail themselves to motorists each day, from racy billboards along highways to blaring radios or conversations with passengers. The cellphone, however, seems to be different because it can connect users to the whole world instantly.

Although many other unwise activities are not explicitly outlawed in California -- eating a hamburger, applying makeup, using an electric razor while driving, for example -- police have the option of citing motorists for reckless driving. Banning a common activity such as talking on a cellphone is one way to directly target a particularly troublesome behavior, police say.

“I’ll do it,” said Bill Condit, 60, a truck driver who was interviewed Friday at a Costco in Burbank. “I’ll take a call” -- in speaker mode -- “and say ‘I’ll call you back.’ If it’s important, I’ll have a conversation.”

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Condit believes that the cellphone is a distraction and that the hands-free law is a good one. But, he says, sometimes work calls need his immediate attention.

Indirectly, the state may have put one more deterrent in place this year.

Although a citation for using a hand-held cellphone or sending a text message still won’t cost motorists any points on their driving records -- something that could boost their insurance rates -- the price of a ticket increased Thursday because of a little-known new California law.

A bill passed by the Legislature this summer mandates that an extra $35 be tacked onto the price of driving citations to help pay for courthouse improvements. That means that a first-time offender who gets caught using a hand-held phone or text-messaging in Los Angeles County would be fined $107.

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steve.hymon@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Drivers with cellphones . . .

Can’t:

* Hold phone to ear (unless it’s an emergency)

* Write, send or read text messages or e-mail

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* Browse the Internet

Can:

* Use hands-free device (Bluetooth in one ear only)

* Dial phone numbers

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* Use GPS system

* Use speaker phone

Note: Drivers under 18 banned from any cellphone use

Source: California Highway Patrol, Vehicle Code 23123

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