Motorists who text or talk on hand-held phones face stiffer penalties under Senate measure

Californians who talk or text on hand-held phones while driving would face steeper penalties — more than $500 in some cases — under a measure approved Monday by state senators.

The lawmakers voted to raise the base fine from $20 to $50 for a first offense and from $50 to $100 for subsequent violations.

Including fees and surcharges imposed by local governments and courts, the total cost of a first offense could be $309, depending on the city where the ticket was issued. A second offense would cost as much as $509, up from the current maximum of about $300, and would add a point to the driver’s record.

The bill would also extend the ban to bicyclists. The first-offense penalty would be $20, and $50 for additional offenses.

The state’s 3-year-old restrictions on hand-held phones have helped lower the number of accidents and fatalities on California roads, said the bill’s author, state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto).


A survey last year by the Automobile Club of Southern California found about 3.6% of drivers using hand-held cellphones, about 60% fewer than before the law went into effect in July 2008. That still means thousands of drivers are using their phones, Simitian said.

Many motorists, unaware of the full potential cost, are not swayed when they hear that they could face a $20 fine, Simitian said.

“The key to making this law work and saving even more lives is to make sure we have education, enforcement and deterrence,” the senator told his colleagues during the floor debate. “We hope that it will be a more significant deterrent,” he said of the proposed fine schedule.

The stiffer penalties, which passed on a 24-12 vote and now go to the Assembly, were opposed by most Republicans, who noted that law-enforcement officers already can pull motorists over for using cellphones or driving unsafely.

“People out there, they hate this bill,” said Sen. Doug La Malfa (R-Richvale). “It makes them angry that they can’t casually use a cellphone in appropriate situations in an automobile.”

California Highway Patrol data show a 50% drop in the number of distracted-driving accidents attributed to cellphones in the six months after the law took effect.

But one taxpayer advocacy group questions whether the law has made the road safer, citing a study last year by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. States that lack such a law also had fewer accidents, the study showed.

“It’s essentially just a revenue-generating mechanism without improving public safety,” said Matt Gray, a lobbyist for Taxpayers for Improving Public Safety.

Gray said the California law allows fines to be imposed on people caught using hand-held cellphones while sitting at stoplights — which, he argued, is not an instance of a driver being distracted.

The legislation that senators approved Monday, SB 28, sets only the base fine. Cities and counties add fees and surcharges for such items as traffic safety programs, courthouse construction and court security.

The Senate approved other measures Monday, including one that would ban the production and sale of caffeinated beer in California. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), the measure’s author, cited incidents in other states in which young people were hospitalized after the caffeine in such beverages disguised the effect of the alcohol until it reached harmful levels.

States that have banned caffeinated beer include Massachusetts, Michigan and Washington.

Padilla’s proposal, SB 39, passed the Senate 24 to 14 and now goes to the Assembly. No one spoke against the bill before the vote.

Senators also OK’d a measure that would require minors to wear helmets when skiing or snowboarding. Supporters said such a law would prevent thousands of serious head injuries on the slopes. Opponents called it an example of “nanny” government.

SB 105 by Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) passed 32 to 5 and heads to the Assembly.