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Getting slapped by 'hands-free' law

Even though you may be saving money by enrolling in a cellular "family share plan," using your cell phone in your car could get very expensive after July 1, when California's new "hands-free" cell phone law takes effect.
Most of California's drivers are unprepared and unaware of the new restrictions. Many more Californians will wait until the last minute to make the switch. Don't procrastinate – now is the time to prepare yourself for the change. No one wants to be the motorist who causes an accident July 1, simply because he or she didn't take the time to learn how to use a telephone headset and was distracted on the I-405 Freeway while trying to answer the phone.

What does the law do? California Vehicle Code Sections 23123 and 23124 prohibit drivers from using a wireless phone while driving a motor vehicle unless a hands-free device – such as a headset or earpiece – is used. California is not the first state to have this kind of legislation; in fact, our cell phone law mirrors that in other states such as New York.

The law also has specific restrictions for younger drivers, who tend to be more prone to distraction. Drivers under age 18 are specifically prohibited from using any mobile device (such as a pager or phone used for texting). Oddly enough, adults are exempt from this particular restriction.

Exceptions to the law exist for emergencies and certain commercial and farmland drivers.
How does the new law work? Peace officers statewide will begin issuing citations to violating drivers beginning July 1. Fines will start at $20 and will increase to $50 for subsequent offenses.

The only upside of the law – or potential shortcoming, depending on your perspective – is that even though any violation will be reported to the DMV, no points will be assigned to the offender's driving record.

Unlike early versions of the seat belt law, peace officers will be authorized to pull you over for no other reason than the fact that you were seen making or receiving a telephone call without a hands-free device – even if no bad driving or other violation occurs. So the officer will be able to speak with you directly and observe any other suspicious behavior. So, if you also happen to be driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol or are hiding illegal substances in your car, this could spell big trouble.

Are there other implications to the new law? The hands-free cell phone law was designed to create safer California roadways by reducing the accidents caused by distracted drivers. A side benefit to the state is the revenue the law will generate – $20 to $50 at a time. However, the ripple effect of the law, especially in the civil-litigation realm, merits an expanded explanation.

If you are violating the cell phone law and get into an accident (whether or not it's your fault) you could be liable for far more than a $20 ticket.

Cell-phone law violators will likely become defendants in a new wave of personal injury litigation. This is due to the principle of "negligence per se," a concept that has long been used by attorneys seeking to recover damages. In a nutshell, negligence per se says that if a driver making an illegal cell phone call is involved in an accident – even if that driver was not driving badly or recklessly – he or she may be more likely found financially liable for anyone's injuries, simply because the driver was in violation of the hands-free law. Furthermore, if the driver has a history of cell phone law violations or a pattern of other vehicle code violations, the possibility grows for a large punitive damage award.
What do you need to do to comply with the law? First, you need to become a hands-free talker, and the sooner you start, the easier and safer your transition will be. Qualifying hands-free devices include headsets and installed in-vehicle hands-free features. In most cases, cell phones with speaker phones and "push to talk" devices will not qualify.
Headsets, "earbuds" and microphones are available for virtually all cell phone models, and many newer cars are equipped with Bluetooth wireless technology and built-in speakerphones.

The technology is there and easy to use. The best part? Everyone will become a safer driver – which is better for you, your family and the community.
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