Court Says Cell-Phone Ban Applies When Stopped at a Red Light

California drivers who think they are not breaking the state’s ban on using a hand-held cell phone while driving if their conversation is carried out at a red light may want to think again.

A state appeals court has ruled against a Northern California man who was cited for that infraction but argued that he was not technically driving at the time because his car was stopped at a traffic signal.

In a unanimous decision, the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco ruled last week that Richmond resident Carl Nelson was using his cell phone “while driving” and must pay the resulting $103 in fines and other penalties.

Nelson was waiting for a light to change on the morning of Dec. 28, 2009, when a motorcycle police officer spotted him dialing and holding the phone to his ear, according to court documents.

Separate laws that took effect in California earlier that year banned both texting and talking on hand-held cell phones while driving.

Nelson was found guilty by a trial court after unsuccessfully arguing that state law banning driver use of a cell phone without a hands-free device did not apply to him because the act of driving requires “volitional movement,” according to the court.

In his defense, Nelson cited a 2001 state Supreme Court ruling that a man was unlawfully arrested for drunken driving after he was found by police sleeping in his car, which was parked against in a residential street with its engine running and headlights on.

In that case, the high court found that the defendant was not violating the law because the vehicle was not being driven.

The appeals court’s Justice James Lambden wrote that Nelson’s case differed, however, because the applicable state law was meant to apply not only to those whose vehicle is in motion, but also to those “who, like defendant, may pause momentarily while doing so in order to comply with the rules of the road.”

Nelson had argued that his cell phone use was safe, given the circumstances, but the appellate panel disagreed.

“Drivers paused in the midst of traffic moving all around them … would likely create hazards to themselves and public safety by their distracted use of their hands on their phones and devices,” Lambden wrote.

According to the court, allowing motorists to use wireless devices while stopped at traffic signals or in similar circumstances would “open the door to innumerable phone calls to and from drivers that commence during such fleeting pauses and are difficult to end quickly when traffic resumes.”

The court’s ruling in Nelson’s case puts a finer point on the state’s prohibition of texting or talking on a handheld behind the wheel.

In September, California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have increased penalties for talking on cell phones without hands-free capability or texting while driving, saying existing penalties should be enough to discourage those illegal behaviors.

The proposed legislation would have boosted fines for a first offense from $20 to $50 and doubled the existing $50 fine for a subsequent offense. With fees and other penalties, the total cost for a first offense would have climbed from a statewide average of about $189 to around $309, according to the lawmaker.

The bill also called for adding a point to motorists’ driving records for subsequent violations, which would likely have cost violators even more money after insurance premiums were factored in.

Insurers give a great deal of weight to a motorist’s driving history—including any citations for moving violations—when determining the size of auto premiums. That means motorists with points on their records can have a difficult time finding affordable rates for low down payment auto insurance or other types of coverage.

About Ben Zitney
Benjamin Zitney has been covering the auto insurance industry for the past 2.5 years. Before coming to Online Auto Insurance News, he produced an extensive company history of the 30-year-old California Joint Powers Insurance Authority and worked at the Cal State Long Beach Daily Forty-Niner as a reporter, copy editor and news editor.

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