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California's latest no-no: D(riving) W(hile) T(exting)

Plenty of drivers still talk with cell phones plastered to their ears, never mind that doing so became illegal in California in July.

That doesn't mean the law isn't having an impact. The California Highway Patrol alone has cited 42,000 drivers in less than six months.

And sometimes the law has even resulted in arrests for other crimes, as was the case in November when Sacramento Police Department officers pulled over a driver in College Glen for chatting on the phone before he led them on a chase and was captured as a parolee-at-large.

Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, said he wrote the law to get motorists into the habit of putting down the cell phone while driving, in the same way California's seat-belt requirement has led drivers to buckle up routinely.

Simitian followed up this year with a law taking effect Thursday that prohibits text messaging while driving. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sign- ed it in September.

Simitian says that the texting ban builds off his cell-phone law, which requires drivers to use a hands-free headset if they must talk on the road.

"It's younger drivers who have higher rates of driving while texting, or DWT, so I think it's important that we get this law on the books and each generation now understands that it's prohibited by law," Simitian said.

The texting ban applies to all drivers. It does not prohibit scrolling on a hands-free phone to find a number, nor does it address activities such as Web surfing or game playing, instead specifically outlawing "text-based communications."

While Simitian said he finds compliance with the cell-phone law encouraging so far, he knows full well that many drivers still hold their phones to their ears. He sees that as a tougher habit for drivers to break than texting, simply because texting hasn't been around nearly as long as cell phones or car phones.

"One of the challenges we had with cell phones was that they had been relatively affordable and common for a decade before the law took effect," Simitian said. "So trying to get folks to change old habits will be less of a challenge with texting."

No groups formally opposed the texting ban, Senate Bill 28, while the cell phone industry, insurers, the California State Automobile Association and bicycling advocates supported the measure.

But many Republicans voted against the bill because they saw it as too much government intrusion. Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, emphasized that California already has laws prohibiting reckless driving, and that it is unnecessary to prescribe bans on specific actions like phone use.

He suggested that the texting ban is just as ridiculous as would be a prohibition on eating or changing the radio station while driving, both distracting behaviors.

"I just see this as a never-ending encroachment," DeVore said. "There's a tendency in the state of California to legislate away stupidity. At some point, people's common sense has to take over. Otherwise, you could have a penal code 10 times as big as it is."

Evan Brown, 20, was shopping recently at Old Sacramento and stopped to check text messages on his cell phone. He said he thinks of the hands-free law as "kind of silly," partly because he doesn't see it being enforced uniformly and partly because he doesn't see it as too dangerous.

But he agrees with the latest ban on texting.

"With a phone, you can still pay attention while you're driving and talking," Brown said. "When you're texting, you have to look down at your phone and start typing."

Drivers caught texting while driving will face fines of about $76 for a first offense and $175 for subsequent offenses including state and local fees, which vary by county and may be higher in some areas.

CHP spokeswoman Jaime Coffee said the fines have shocked violators of the cell-phone law. Many drivers thought the first offense would only cost them $20, which Schwarzenegger himself cited when he signed that law in 2006. That figure did not account for the local fees that counties charge.

"There were a lot of people expecting a $20 ticket and calling in to say it was a lot more," Coffee said. "They were freaking out. There are penalties and assessments, and that's where the ticket changes dramatically."

It's unclear that enforcement of the texting law will come close to the roughly 8,000 citations per month the CHP has issued for drivers holding their phones while talking. DeVore noted that the law's exception for scrolling through phone numbers may give drivers an excuse if pulled over.

"How can an officer discern the difference between that and texting?" DeVore asked.

CHP has cited only 229 drivers through early December under a separate law that banned minors, beginning in July, from using their cell phone for any purpose, including texting.

Simitian said enforcement statistics won't tell the whole story; he noted that a lack of citations could just as well mean that drivers are following the law. But he said his main focus is creating a widespread behavioral change, regardless of how many tickets are issued.

And, he noted, the law gives parents a good excuse for cracking down on their kids.

"I hear from a lot of parents who tell their kids, 'This isn't just Mom and Dad talking, this is the law, and if you're going to use your phone, you can't drive the car,' " Simitian said.

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