California Lawmakers Move to Ban Texting While Driving

Published November 1, 2008

The California legislature has approved a bill prohibiting telephone texting while driving, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has signed it into law.

The new law prohibits the operator of any motor vehicle from “using an electronic wireless communications device to write, send, or read a text-based communication,” including e-mails.

Analysts are criticizing the bill as unnecessary because laws already prohibit “distracted driving.” In addition, they note, the market is already creating alternatives, specifically aimed at drivers, to keyboard-based texting.

Another Mandate

The new law, Senate Bill 28, authorizes $20 fines for adults caught text-messaging while driving. Repeated offenses could cost drivers $50 in fines but would not put penalty points on their driving records.

The bill passed the state Senate by a vote of 25-14, with the Assembly approving it 52-24. Opposition came from Republicans, who said the measure was an unnecessary interference in personal behavior. Despite the opposition within his own party, Schwarzenegger signed the bill in late September.

The measure comes on top of one that went into effect July 1 requiring adult drivers to use hands-free devices when operating cell phones while driving.

“With the original hands-free cell phone law that went into effect on July 1st of this year, I argued that studies show that hands-free vs. handheld does not matter,” said Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R- Irvine). “It seems the brain gets distracted with the whole notion of speaking to someone who is not in the car.

“My own staffer was recently pulled over because he had his left hand up by his ear while driving,” DeVore added. “This is a waste of police time and a further encroachment on our liberties. How can an officer tell the difference between punching in a phone number, which is still allowed, and texting, which isn’t under the bill?”

DeVore also expressed concerns about the law’s potential effect on the telecom industry.

“The telecommunications market was overloaded in California with people buying hands-free devices” after the mandate went into effect, DeVore said. “There were spot shortages for weeks.”

The California Highway Patrol has taken no position on the texting ban, which goes into effect January 1.

Juveniles Already Barred

California state law had already barred juvenile drivers from using any type of “mobile service device,” including all cell phones and text messagers, while driving. The violation is classified as a secondary offense, meaning minors cannot be stopped for using a hands-free cell phone or a text messager unless they break a second traffic law at the same time.

Senate Bill 28 changes that, allowing officers to cite juvenile drivers solely for texting.

California law before the ban did not specifically prohibit those 18 and older from texting while driving, but law enforcement officials say it’s generally covered under statutes aimed at distracted drivers.

California’s crackdown is part of a nationwide movement to regulate what people are allowed to do while driving. In California alone, more than 4,000 people die in traffic accidents each year, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Industry Consulted

State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), author of the bill, defended his push for tougher texting regulation.

“The [law] is necessary since it gives drivers a clear direction of what is allowed and what is not while driving,” Simitian said, emphasizing his belief it is unsafe to text while driving. “Common sense is not always common. The [law] will make the rules of the road safer for drivers.”

Simitian downplayed his legislation’s impact on the telecommunications market.

“We worked with folks in the telecommunications market, and they all indicated support for the bill,” Simitian said, explaining the law prohibits particular behavior, not specific technology.

Some 57 percent of people admit having sent text messages or e-mails while sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle, while 66 percent have read messages while driving, according to a survey last year by the mobile messaging service Pinger. The survey found 89 percent of American adults believe sending text messages while driving is dangerous and should be outlawed.

The new law is backed by wireless companies including Motorola and T-Mobile, insurance companies Liberty Mutual and State Farm, and the California Bicycle Coalition and Center for Auto Safety.

Limitations Criticized

Steve Thomas of says he is not against the measure but believes it is shortsighted and incomplete.

“I believe we should be focused on distracted driving as a whole, not just cell phones,” Thomas said. “Cell phones are just another distraction, like putting on makeup [while looking] in the rearview mirror, attending to young children, brushing your teeth. The list is endless.

“Cell phone use while driving isn’t necessarily a hazard, but in general distracted driving is a huge hazard and should be illegal,” Thomas said. “Outlawing only cell phones while driving because of the danger is like outlawing only the .45 caliber handgun because it’s dangerous; there are a few hundred more guns that could kill you.”

Regarding the law’s potential effect on the telecommunications market, Thomas said, “Cell phones need Bluetooth to operate hands-free, and the headset vendors should get a good boost when laws go into effect.”

Other States

Anne Teigen, a policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures, noted New Jersey, Washington, and, most recently, Minnesota, specifically prohibit texting while driving. Six states—California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Utah, and Washington—and the District of Columbia prohibit the use of handheld phones while driving.

“At least 21 states considered legislation this year related to texting while driving,” Teigen said.

Tara Samuels, marketing manager at mobile messaging service Pinger, Inc., said the market can come up with solutions.

“Pinger offers people a simple and safer alternative that keeps their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel,” Samuels said. “It’s free, and it works on virtually any mobile phone.”

Pinger offers an instant voice-operated messaging service that can be combined with a hands-free headset. By simply calling Pinger, saying the name of a contact, speaking the message, and then hanging up, drivers are able to send a message to any U.S. mobile phone while keeping their eyes on the road.

Tabassum Rahmani ([email protected]) writes from Dublin, California.