Wednesday, June 20 , 2018, 3:36 am | Fair 57º


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Don’t Touch That Phone: Hands-Free Laws Take Effect Tuesday for Motorists

Here's the 4-1-1 on what's legal and what's not when it comes to using your cell phone while driving.

Starting Tuesday, drivers in California won’t be permitted to talk on their cell phones without using a hands-free device. Drivers under 18 won’t be allowed to drive and talk at all. (Mollie Helmuth photo / Noozhawk)

Imagine a typical morning commute: A coffee thermos is nestled into the middle console, a briefcase is propped up on the passenger seat and the flow of traffic is smooth. The phone rings. Do you answer it? Chatty drivers are already being pulled over by police officers issuing warnings about California’s new “hands-free” laws, which take effect Tuesday.

The two laws target on-the-road phone use. The first law bans all drivers from hand-held wireless telephone use while driving a vehicle. The second prohibits drivers younger than age 18 from using any type of cell phone while driving a vehicle, regardless of whether the device is hands-free.

The dichotomy in the law between underage motorists and adults has agitated some young drivers, according to Steve Morris, owner of Steve Morris’ Defensive Driving School in Santa Barbara.

“Kids may complain, but even though they pass the test, they still need experience before they use a hands-free device,” Morris said. “This is just taking away one of the distractions for teen drivers.”

Hands-free devices are available for a range of prices and in a variety of styles, and are easy to find.

Carol Murphy is a retail sales representative at the Santa Barbara in-store Verizon at Circuit City. She said sales on the devices have been higher than usual.

“A lot of people already got pulled over by the cops, and so that’s why they came in,” Murphy said, “but I would say sales have at least doubled.”

The infraction is not just a secondary violation. A law enforcement officer can pull over a driver simply for using a hand-held wireless phone while operating his or her vehicle. One infraction costs $20 with secondary violations costing up to $50 — and those are just the base fines. After factoring in penalty assessments, the fines rise to $76 and $190.

Murphy said many people were confused about which date the hands-free law would be enforced.

“A lot of people, including myself, thought it would be starting June 1, and then it was July 1,” she said.

The law passed two years ago, but law enforcement officials issued a grace period to allow people to purchase hands-free devices and to get used to the idea, California Highway Patrol spokesman Tom Marshall said.

“It’s coincidental that the enforcement is going into effect at the same time as our annual maximum enforcement period for the Fourth of July, when 80 percent of our officers will be on the road,” Marshall said. He also said that drivers older than 18 will not be pulled over for text messaging while driving. However, if an officer senses a threat to traffic, the driver can be stopped.

If caught using a cell phone while driving beginning Tuesday, the penalty will be a $20 fine, which will grow to $76 with administrative fees figured in. Subsequent convictions will be $50, plus fees. (Mollie Helmuth photo / Noozhawk)

When using a hands-free device with a headset and earpiece, drivers should remember that it is still illegal if the headset covers both ears.

Buellton resident Eydie Harridge, 34, said she already bought her hands-free device but isn’t used to it yet.

“It seems pretty easy,” Harridge said of using the device. “I hope the law would help because I think it would be more like talking to another person in the car rather than holding the steering wheel with one hand and the phone in the other.”

There are, of course, exceptions to the law. For example, a driver can use a phone to make an emergency call to law enforcement, a medical provider or the fire department. Also, motorists operating a vehicle on private property are exempt, as are motorists driving an emergency vehicle.

Use of the push-to-talk feature common on many phones is not allowed, with certain exceptions for drivers of commercial motor trucks, tractor-trailers or tow trucks who use two-way radios with a push-to-talk element. Also, out-of-state visitors, even if their home states don’t have such a law, may face violation charges if caught using a hand-held device while driving in California, which is the largest state to require hands-free calling.

For drivers younger than 18, parent permission or presence does not legally allow using any wireless device while driving a vehicle. While officers will not pull someone over for the infraction, it is considered a secondary violation.

The law does not apply to passengers in the car. However, drivers younger than 18 operating under a provisionary license still cannot carry passengers for 12 months after getting a license unless accompanied by a licensed driver older than 25.

For those who get cited in violation of the new laws, there is a bright side: Although it is a reportable offense, the Department of Motor Vehicles says it will not assign violation points to driving records.

Noozhawk intern Mollie Helmuth can be reached at [email protected]

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