California drivers, feel free to text away -- as long as you don't use your fingers.
Much to the chagrin of many motorists disturbed by the growing problem of distracted drivers, a new state law kicks in Tuesday that will allow anyone behind the wheel to receive and send a text message as long as they are using technology designed to allow for a fully voice-operated, hands-free operation.
"A bad idea," said Eric Nordman, a 54-year-old mechanical engineer from Palo Alto. "There are enough distracted drivers out there without adding to the problem."
Proponents say ever-changing technology makes the new law inevitable, and they say it's better than having drivers type messages from handheld phones with their eyes off the road.
A driver going 55 mph while typing can cover the length of a football field without looking up, studies have shown.
The texting change is one of several new traffic laws to go into effect in 2013, including one setting standards on the use of red-light cameras and another allowing drivers to park free at locations where meters are broken.
The new rule on texting has caught the attention of safety advocates from California to Washington, D.C.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called cellphone use and texting "a national epidemic" and wants automakers to get behind voluntary government efforts to ensure dashboard technologies increasingly being added to cars won't distract drivers.
The National Transportation Safety Board has called for a ban on cellphone use by drivers, including the use of hands-free phones. Most studies show hands-free conversations are just as distracting to drivers as those involving handheld phones.
The new California law prohibits texting while driving unless it's done on an "electronic wireless communications device (that) is specifically designed and configured to allow voice-operated and hands-free operation to dictate, send, or listen to a text-based communication." That appears to mean texting with the iPhone's Siri or Android's Google Now is OK, because the law allows drivers to touch a device to activate or deactivate it or to enter a telephone number.
"This clarifies some of the gray areas in previous laws," said spokesman Chris Cochran of the state Office of Traffic Safety. But he said it's preferable not to use cellphones while driving at all, as "research has shown that the conversation itself is dangerous due to inattention blindness and the brain's tendency to move functions needed for driving over to the conversation."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 5,474 people were killed and an estimated 448,000 were injured in 2009 in accidents that involved distracted driving -- about 16 percent of all traffic deaths.
Questions posed to a dozen drivers revealed that all think it's unwise to allow texting while driving, even with a hands-free gadget.
"The law doesn't reduce or eliminate the mental distraction," said Tim Hyde, of San Jose, whose son was hit by a texting driver at the Highway 85-87 interchange. "But being as pragmatic as I am, I know there will never be a way to legislate that away, as it would be virtually undetectable and unenforceable."
Added Sue Fikes, a 70-year-old retired junior high math teacher from Palo Alto: "Who needs to do texting of any kind while driving?"
Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.
Assembly Bill 2020 says a person arrested on suspicion of DUI will no longer be given the option of a urine test. In previous years, DUI suspects were given the option of a breath, blood or urine test.
Senate Bill 1298 establishes conditions for the testing and operation of "autonomous vehicles," which can operate without the active control and continuous monitoring of a human driver. The law calls on the DMV to develop regulations governing the operation of these vehicles on state roads before 2015 and will require a licensed driver to be behind the wheel.
Senate Bill 1388 allows motorists to park at broken meters up to the posted time limit without fear of getting a ticket unless the local jurisdiction provides visible and adequate notice of any prohibitions at parking locations.
Assembly Bill 1536 allows drivers to dictate, send or listen to text-based communications while driving as long as they do so using technology specifically designed and configured to allow fully voice-operated, hands-free operation.
Assembly Bill 2189 allows a car rental company to verify a renter's identity by comparing the driver's license photo to the driver renting the vehicle.
Assembly Bill 2489 prohibits a person from operating a vehicle with a product or device that obscures -- or is intended to obscure -- the reading or recognition of a license plate by sight or use of an electronic device (like a toll or red-light camera). The new law also prohibits a person from erasing, painting over or altering a license plate to avoid visual or electronic capture of the license plate or its characters.
Senate Bill 1303 establishes statewide standards for red-light cameras. It requires camera locations be based solely on safety considerations; prohibits the use of red-light cameras to raise revenue; requires cities and counties to follow state standards in the placement and operation of cameras; and requires adequate signs to notify drivers when red-light cameras are in use. It also prohibits so-called "snitch tickets" (i.e., an innocent ticket recipient may not be required to identify another driver in order to clear an inaccurate ticket).
Assembly Bill 45 requires that bus and limousine drivers be held responsible for telling all underage passengers that drinking alcohol is illegal. If alcohol is being transported in a bus or limousine with underage passengers on board, a person at least 25 years old must be on board to ensure there is no underage consumption.
Assembly Bill 1708 says drivers will have the right to show proof of insurance on a smartphone or tablet when pulled over.
Senate Bill 1047 authorizes a CHP Silver Alert system similar to Amber Alert, but for missing people older than 65.
Sources: DMV, AAA
1. Before getting into a car, sync your phone to a device like a Bluetooth earpiece or, if you have a new car, an app on your steering wheel or dashboard.
2. When driving, turn on your earpiece or the part of your car that's connected to your phone.
3. Say "text" and then the name of person you want to text, then speak out the message and say "send."
4. When receiving text messages, your earpiece or car speaker should speak the text to you.
Source: California Highway Patrol.