It has been 2 years now since California has enacted the hands-free law that makes it illegal to text or talk on a cell phone without a headset while driving. The law is still new, but the mind behind it, Senator Joe Simitian, is already pushing to expand the law’s power. If passed by the California Senate, the hands-free bill will hold bicyclists accountable the same way as drivers, just with a lesser penalty.
The decision of passing the bill, however, won’t be easily made, and debate surrounding this proposal questions whether this is premature expansion of the law and whether the changes would even prevent bicycle accidents.
Opponents of the California bill think it is too soon to add to the existing distracted driving laws since data regarding their effectiveness and value thus far is limited. Another point that challenges the proposed legislation is that distracted bicyclists are not as serious of a threat on the road as drivers behind the wheel of a car.
Supporters of the expanded hands-free laws admit that that might be true. They still point out that even though a bicycle itself would not cause as much damage as a motor vehicle, distracted cyclists who veer into the road could initiate a dangerous chain of events. Irresponsible cyclists could force cars to avoid them by swerving, and therefore increase the likelihood of not only the cyclists getting hurt, but also other drivers on the road getting into a fatal accident.
If this bill goes into law, bicyclists caught using their cell phones illegally would be fined $20 for the first offense. If caught breaking the law again, the fine would increase to $50.
To the chagrin of the bill’s opponents, the changes would not only expand to include cyclists but also to increase distracted driving penalties for drivers. Not only would the fines increase to $50 for the first offense (currently $20) and $100 for subsequent violations (currently $50), but the bill proposes to add points to offenders’ driving records.
The California DMV uses a driving point system to monitor driver safety. If a driver racks up too many points, their insurance rates will increase, and they might even get their driver’s license suspended. Proponents (and opponents of the bill who think the laws are currently ignored and therefore ineffective) hope that this addition to the bill will actually deter distracted driving.
We will keep you updated on the status of this bill, but as of now, it looks as though it is time for California drivers and riders to buy — and use — a cell phone headset.