To all those drivers who continue to yak on a handheld cellphone or text while behind the wheel -- and there are many of you -- pay attention. Fines are very likely to go up.
The California Legislature on Monday passed a bill that would raise the current fine plus penalties to $309 from $189. The bill now goes before Gov. Jerry Brown. A spokesman said Brown had no immediate comment on the bill, but supporters believe he will sign it into law.
Senate Bill 28, authored by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, also would make a second offense a moving violation that would go on a driver's record. That would potentially add up to $100 a year or more to violators' insurance premiums unless they went to traffic school.
The bill also would make it illegal for bicyclists to use a handheld phone.
The state Office of Traffic Safety and AAA estimate that as many as 40 percent of drivers with cellphones ignore the hands-free requirement. In April, during a monthlong statewide crackdown, police across the state issued nearly 60,000 tickets.
The California Highway Patrol has issued 100,700 tickets through July, and that is believed to be only about half the number written, because it does not include data from city and county law enforcement. That compares with 48,398 tickets the CHP handed out three years ago in six months when the law first went into effect.
"The dangerous use of cellphones while driving exploded on the scene in recent years," said Christopher J. Murphy, director of the Office of Traffic Safety. "California has recognized this threat to safety and has committed to hit it head-on. The April campaign was just the start but a very impressive one."
Simitian said a more significant deterrent that has the potential to improve compliance and enhance public safety is needed.
"We can do better and save even more lives," he said in a news release.
CHP data showed an immediate drop of 40 to 50 percent in the number of distracted-driving accidents attributed to cellphones after the law went into effect, Simitian said.
Some drivers think the law is an overreaction, since drivers with headsets or speakerphones can legally talk. Studies show that it's the phone conversation that is the main risk and not whether the phone is being held.
"Civil disobedience on a clearly massive scale such as this can only mean folks think it's a bad law," said Malcolm Hoar of Fremont. "It's that simple."
But others think otherwise and wish fines were harsher.
"I get real irritated with cellphone abusers," said motorist Ed Marrs. "I think the problem will never get better until they raise the penalties much higher. I am thinking $1,000 the first offense and double for the next two. After that, the arresting officer is authorized to stomp the phone into the ground!"
Marrs was almost sideswiped by a woman talking on her phone as he drove on Great America Parkway in Santa Clara with his grandkids in the car.
"I gave her the 'hang up' signal, and she, very unladylike, gave me the bird," Marrs said. "Less than 10 seconds later, a motorcycle officer pulled in behind her and took her to the curb! That really made my day. I still chuckle about it."
Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.