Governor Rejects Proposal to Beef Up Distracted-Driving Penalties

California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill Wednesday that would have increased penalties for talking on hand-held cell phones or texting while driving, saying existing penalties should be enough to discourage those illegal behaviors.

The proposed legislation, introduced by state Sen. Joe Simitian, would have nearly doubled fines and fees for hands-free and no-texting violations, added a point to the driving record of repeat offenders and broadened the ban to cover bicyclists.

“I certainly support discouraging cell phone use while driving a car, but not ratcheting up the penalties as prescribed by this bill,” Brown wrote in vetoing the bill.

Simitian, a Palo Alto Democrat, described the veto as “a lost opportunity to save more lives” and said he would look for “any room for compromise in the coming year.”

Separate laws that took effect in California in 2009 banned texting and talking on hand-held cell phones while driving, but Simitian and others have claimed tougher penalties are needed to increase public safety.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 20 percent of injury crashes in 2009 involved use of a cell phone or other forms of distracted driving, such as changing radio stations or eating and drinking. And cell phones were involved in 18 percent of fatal distracted driving crashes, NHTSA reported.

About 14 percent of motorists who took part in a 2010 survey conducted by the California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) admitted to regularly talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving during the previous 30 days. About 10 percent said they had texted or emailed while driving during the same period.

The OTS survey also showed 46 percent of respondents said they had made a driving mistake while talking on a cell phone.

Thirty-four states, the District of Columbia and Guam have laws barring texting by drivers, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Nine states, D.C. and the Virgin Islands have outlawed hand-held cell phone use on the part of motorists.

Simitian’s bill 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.

A motorist’s driving history, including any citations for moving violations, plays a key part in determining the size of auto premiums, according to the Insurance Information Institute. In other words, motorists with points on their record may be disappointed when they browse free auto insurance quotes in search of the lowest rates for which they qualify.

About Gregor McGavin
Gregor McGavin is an award-winning journalist who has reported across the country for such publications as The Associated Press, the Arizona Republic, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Press-Enterprise.

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