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TEXTING While Driving Is Dangerous & Illegal

Posted on 02 January 2009 by Monica Zech

Texting is now illegal while driving

Text messaging is now illegal in the state of California. Texting is now a violation of the state vehicle code, subjecting drivers caught writing them or reading them to a $20 fine for the first offense and $50 for repeat offenses.

The new law is the handiwork of state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who also wrote the hands-free cell phone legislation that went into effect July 1, 2008. In just under six months, the California Highway Patrol has handed out 45,000 citations to violators of that law, and the CHP is expected to have its hands full trying to keep up with motorists who have their hands full of tiny QWERTY keyboards, thumbing their way down the open road.

It took Simitian six years to get hands-free calling through the Legislature and onto California’s roadways, but he says he encountered almost no resistance to the no-texting law. “It’s really the worst of all possible worlds,” Simitian said of texting, which has grown increasingly popular with supposedly grown-up drivers. “Eyes off the road, and hands off the wheel. That’s a dangerous combination for all of us, not just the people who are texting.”

Strictly speaking, it’s still not illegal to drive a vehicle in California while you are, say, applying mascara, or shaving your legs, or even worshipping that pine-scented air freshener on the dashboard.

 “Nowhere in the vehicle code does it say you cannot put your makeup on, or read the newspaper, or do a thousand other things,” said Sgt. Paul Woo of the San Jose Police Department’s traffic enforcement unit. “But if that causes you to drive unsafely, then yes, you could be cited.”

For the record, if you’re reading the newspaper and driving right this minute, please stop, then finish this article while you are pretending to work.

When Simitian submitted the bill, some questioned why a law was needed to prevent motorists from doing something as obviously crazy as typing and reading at 65 mph. However, it turns out, crazy is not always forbidden in the Golden State.

“You would think that common sense would dictate that somebody would not do something like that,” Woo said, “but realistically, people will do all kinds of things. Their attitude is, ‘Well, there’s no law that says I can’t.’ Sometimes it has to be in black and white.”

Which is where the new law comes in. “Regrettably, common sense isn’t always that common,” said Simitian, who nevertheless has no plans to introduce anti-calisthenics legislation to the vehicle code. “I think you fix the problems you can fix, and you focus on the distractions that are deadliest.” 

Simitian cited a study released in September by Britain’s Transport Research Laboratory, in which it was shown that texting behind the wheel is more dangerous than driving while drunk or stoned on marijuana. According to the study, drivers’ reaction times fell by 35 percent while they were reading or composing a text message, compared with a decline of 21 percent among those who had consumed the legal limit of alcohol.

Of course, those are people who drive on the wrong side of the road. So there’s that.

Simitian found research that showed in California, more than half the people who text do so while driving. “If you do the math, that means that probably 5 or 6 million California drivers are driving while texting at some point,” Simitian said. “If I told you there were 5 or 6 million drunk drivers on the road, people would be up in arms.”

In Silicon Valley, where multitasking is a skill exalted above all others, this change has a lot of people worried, just as the move to hands-free did. But 16- and 17-year-olds have served as a test case for text-free driving since July, and so far, fewer than 300 citations have been handed out by the CHP statewide.

The new fines actually will cost closer to $100 for first offenders, and $200 every time after that, when court costs are factored in. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty small,” Woo said. But he’s optimistic about enforcing it. “A lot of times, people are so engrossed in their text messaging,” he said, “they don’t even realize that there’s an officer right next to them, watching them do it.”

Contact Bruce Newman at [email protected] or (408) 920-5004.

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