Governor says ‘Hasta la vista’ to chatty teen drivers

Starting next summer, motormouth teens who use cell phones while driving will face fines for gabbing on the road. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited Sequoia High School on Thursday to sign the new law, authored by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, who also authored a 2006 bill prohibiting drivers from using electronic devices unless they are hands-free.

Both laws take effect July 1, 2008.

“This will eliminate a major distraction for our young and inexperienced drivers and make the roads safer for everyone,” said Schwarzenegger, who has two teenage daughters. “I tell them, ‘If I see you using the phone once while driving, you get both taken away — you’re taking the bus.’”

The law prohibits anyone under 18 from using an electronic device, such as a cell phone, pager, iPod or laptop computer, while operating a vehicle. Teens who violate the law will be fined $20 for the first offense and $50 for subsequent offenses.

New 16-year-old drivers are three times as likely to have a crash as 17-year-olds and five times as likelyas 18-year-olds to be involved in a vehicular accident, according to a 2001 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report.

“Car crashes are the No. 1 cause of death among teens today,” Simitian said. “The combination of cell phones and driving has proved to be deadly.”

Driver inattention and speeding are the top two reasons teen drivers are involved in auto accidents, according to Theresa Becker, spokeswoman with the California Highway Patrol. Any distraction — from putting on makeup to talking on a cell phone to text messaging — can lead to inattention.

Simitian wanted the law to focus on teens, rather than on inexperienced drivers, because minors are particularly vulnerable.

“We looked at the possibility of applying it to all new drivers. But it’s the combination of youth and inexperience, and the fact that the area of the brain that controls risky behavior is not fully developed until people are 25, that made me want to apply it to teens,” Simitian said.

Police officers will not be able to pull drivers over simply because officers think the driver may be a teenager yakking away to friends — they must look for other signs of illegal activity.

“We will be able to enforce the hands-free law once it’s in effect,” Becker said. “It’s not too hard to pull someone over for erratic driving — we will be out there looking for these violators.”

Cell phones and driving

State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, has authored two bills in two years controlling how drivers use electronic devices. Both take effect July 1, 2008. Here’s what they do:

» SB 33: Teen drivers and electronic devices Bars drivers younger than 18 from using cell phones, laptops, iPods, pagers and other electronic devices Violators pay a $20 fine on first violation, $50 on subsequent violations.

» SB 1613: All drivers and electronic devices Requires drivers 18 and older to use hands-free technology when talking on cell phones. Violators pay a $20 fine on first violation, $50 on subsequent violations.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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