Police: Hang up and drive

Drivers continue to talk without a headset despite state law, authorities say

One year after a California law came into effect banning drivers from talking on cell phones without a headset, too many are continuing to flout the rules, Mountain View police say.

As of July 1 of last year, California drivers could only use headsets to talk while driving, and in January 2009 it became illegal for drivers to write or read text messages while behind the wheel. Drivers under 18 cannot talk on cell phones at all while driving, although all drivers can use a phone during an emergency.

Locally, these laws have resulted in hundreds of citations. As of June 30 Mountain View police officers had cited 1,116 drivers for talking without a headset or texting, a total equal to nearly 11.5 percent of all citations in the city. Only 12 of these citations were for texting.

But police spokesperson Liz Wylie says many drivers are still breaking the law, and she added it's difficult to catch all of the offenders because they can easily put down their phone when they see an officer or hide the phone while texting.

"The law is fabulous. The problem is that you don't always get people obeying it," Wylie said. "We would have to focus on it 24/7, and we just can't."

The fines and punishments for breaking the laws, Wylie said, are not big enough to discourage people from using their phones while behind the wheel. The first offense for talking without a headset or texting is $20, and drivers are fined $50 for subsequent violations. (The actual fine can be more than triple this "base fine" amount due to what the DMV calls "penalty assessments.") Drivers do not get points on their licenses for these convictions, and it does not appear on driving records.

"A lot of people don't go into the carpool lane because the punishment is severe financially," Wylie said. But in regards to the cell phone laws, "People are willing to accept the consequences."

Driving and talking illegally is also a statewide problem, according to Office of Traffic Safety spokesperson Chris Cochran. In the first year of the new law, he said, California Highway Patrol officers have cited 112,966 drivers.

"This doesn't even take into account all the tickets police have written," he said.

Cochran didn't have date available on the number of citations issued for texting while driving, but noted that it was relatively low since the activity "is easily hidden." He said California needed to take the law to the next level, and forbid drivers from using phones at all while behind the wheel.

"The greatest distraction is talking," he said. "It disengages your brain as much as if you had .08 blood alcohol content."

He referred to a case in Oklahoma City, reported this week in the New York Times, where a young driver did not see a red light because he was on the phone. He ran the light, hitting and killing a woman in another vehicle.

Cochran said there have been no such "high profile" cases in California, but "We would rather not have people use (the phones) at all. Just go cell phone free."


Posted by ALEX637, a resident of Shoreline West
on Jul 30, 2009 at 2:14 pm

I commute to and from work every day on the major freeways and see people on their phones constantly, and they're still affecting other driver's because most people cannot do the two things at once.

This state needs money. They should raise the fine limits on this offense - good subsidy. So, when a single driver is in the carpool lane, talking on his cell phone, tossing his cigarette butt out the window trifecta!!!

Posted by dilchien, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jul 30, 2009 at 2:26 pm

Does anybody know if it's legal to do a quick call or text if the car is actually stopped - i.e. either at a red light or pulled over to the side of the road. It's not considered driving and cell-phone using, is it?

Posted by Laurel, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 30, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Re: calling or texting at a red light. This is still illegal, as you are still expected to be attending to what is happening around you (and haven't you seen people fail to start up when the light changes because they're on their phone?). It is legal to talk on the phone when pulled over and stopped at the side of the road--so long as that's a legal place to park.

Posted by Bernie Brightman, a resident of North Whisman
on Jul 30, 2009 at 2:49 pm

I see tons of people talking on the phone while driving all the time, including Tuesday night someone brazenly driving by the police station doing that. Not only does the talking distract them, but because they only have one hand on the wheel, they drive less carefully and less correctly, especially when turning.

Posted by concerned, a resident of Whisman Station
on Jul 30, 2009 at 3:34 pm

I am an officer who cites people for this, and I constantly get responses trying to justify why it was o.k. for the person to talk. others blatantly seem o.k. with the "small" fine along with no moving violation assesments. The idea of making the fine substantially larger would greatly decrease cell phone use. Revenue gathering would be small, as the actual amount gathered by citations is tiny compared to the rest of a municipal budget.

Posted by Angela Hey, a resident of another community
on Jul 30, 2009 at 3:52 pm

I think it would be a good idea to have special parking places for people to text and phone, like they do at the airport where people can text. These could be actual lots, pull-offs at the side of rural roads and specially marked parking places.

Just as people use coffee shops like the Red Rock Cafe as their office, there need to be sites where people can use their car as an office.

Posted by NW Resident, a resident of North Whisman
on Jul 30, 2009 at 5:15 pm

Casey, in the article you wrote that MVPD has cited 1,116 drivers as of June 30th. Over what time period is that number of citations? Since the law went into effect a year ago? Just for 2009? Do you have more specific data?

The statistic about cell phone citations being 11.5% of the total written in MV gives a better indication of how cell phone violations fit into the overall picture.

Posted by jb, a resident of Whisman Station
on Jul 30, 2009 at 6:52 pm

"The greatest distraction is talking," he said. "It disengages your brain as much as if you had .08 blood alcohol content."

Why, oh why is using your hand to talk on a phone illegal, but talking on the phone itself, even handsfree, is not??? I use my hand while driving to adjust the temperature, change radio stations, shift gears, etc. Am I breaking the law when I do those things? Why can't I use my hand to hold the phone when I'm talking to someone? If talking on the phone is dangerous, then ban it. (And charge fines equivalent to running a red light). But if it is legal, then it does not make one iota of sense to not be able to use my hand to hold the phone while on a conversation.

Posted by DM, a resident of North Whisman
on Jul 30, 2009 at 11:27 pm

What about all the cops out there who continue to drive while talking on the phone or texting, they obviously are NOT making an emergency call? I see them constantly doing this and yet its ILLEGAL! Are they above the law just because they're cops? Im sorry but we hire them to UPHOLD the law, not "legally" break it. I get so tired of cops using their badge to break the law and then turn around and pull someone over for doing the very same thing!!!

It seems like these silly laws are only enforced when cops are bored or want a reason to pull someone over, maybe they should follow these drivers a bit before pulling them over to see if they are paying attention to the road and if so, leave em alone!? Pull over the drivers who obviously CAN"T drive while talking on the phone, we've all seen them!

Just a little obsevation...

Posted by JJ, a resident of Sylvan Park
on Jul 31, 2009 at 12:28 am

My radio has bluetooth built in. Does dialing count as texting? If i cannot text why would i be allow to dial my phone to make a call? Well, I do it anyway. I've heard talk of requiring an endorsement for using phone in the car. That sounds like a good idea. For example, doesn't a taxi or delivery driver pretty much require a communication device to make his job efficient?

As for the officers talking on their phones, I remember the law explicitly said that police are allow to use phones. Well, that just doesn't seem fair. Aside: I've seen the patrol cars doing about 60 down California and Castro streets at night without their lights, that doesn't seem too safe to me - less safe than driving while on the phone to me.

How can I affect change to irradicate this law or at least to provide a provision for endorsements. And how do I go about making a complaint that the officers are driving recklessly?

Posted by Old Ben, a resident of Shoreline West
on Jul 31, 2009 at 9:45 am

The cell phone narcissists think they should have a right to endanger everyone on the highway so they can blab away on their idiotic gadgets. The cops carry guns, too. I think it's unfair that I can't; as a matter of fact, I think it's unconstitutional that I can't. But I'm not going to break that law to prove a point. Make the penalty for cell phone use as severe as that for DUI, it's at least as dangerous.

Posted by LSC, a resident of another community
on Jul 31, 2009 at 1:25 pm

Every day on El Camino Real I see people texting while driving. The first thing I notice is that they're driving 10-15 miles under the speed limit and they veer into other lanes. It's extremely dangerous and annoying.

Posted by knowitall, a resident of another community
on Aug 3, 2009 at 8:48 am

The law DOES allow public safety employees to talk on their cell phones, and there are quite a few reasons why. First of all, most officers already wear an ear piece for their radio system. Wearing two earpieces in one ear is impossible and wearing one in each ear is also impossible (given the way our brains process sound). That's the main reason. Second, officers often times use their cell phones to contact dispatchers, Records personnel, etc, for information. Using the phone frees up the valuable radio air time. It's not logical for an officer to use the radio to contact Records to have them do research on a subject of interest. Also, officers use the cell phones to conduct business when they don't want the public to hear what they are discussing - radio frequencies are public and the crooks have scanners. As for speeding......officers are only able to use their lights and sirens under very specific circumstances. The first time you have a prowler in your backyard, you'll understand why officers sometimes drive fast without the lights and sirens. It would be illegal to use lights and sirens for that type of call. But you will DEFINITELY want the officer there FAST if it happens in your backyard! Also, what chance will the officers have of catching the suspect if he can hear them coming from 5 miles away? The next time your neighbors get into what sounds like a possible physical fight, you'll want the officers to come quick. They will not legally be able to come with lights and sirens going, but they will most certainly be driving over the posted speed limit. People - did you ever stop to think there is more to "it" ("it representing just about anything in life) than what you may THINK you know?

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