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."