California’s strict new law: Drivers, put down that cellphone

In Sacramento and around the state, where distracted driving has reached dangerous levels, drivers are expressing mixed feelings about a new state law cracking down on cellphone use by motorists.

Starting the first day of 2017, drivers no longer are allowed to hold their cellphones in their hands for any reason, including using any of a phone’s apps, such as music playlists.

“The whole idea is you don’t have the phone in your hand, period,” said Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, author of the new law, which he says should make it easier for officers to stop and cite drivers for illegal phone use.

Quirk’s bill, AB 1785, plugged what safety officials called a major loophole in the state’s groundbreaking hands-free cellphone laws. Those laws ban talking and texting on handheld phones while driving. But any other handheld use of a phone, such as shooting videos or scanning Facebook, has been technically legal.

Under the new law, drivers can still use their cellphones if they do it hands-free, which often means voice activated and operated.

However, phones must be mounted on the dashboard or windshield or console. With a phone mounted, the new law allows the driver to touch the phone once, to “activate or deactivate a feature or function ... with the motion of a single swipe or tap of the driver’s finger.”

The law is designed to stop people from holding their phones for a variety of uses that have become popular in recent years, including checking and posting on Facebook, using Snapchat, scrolling through Spotify or Pandora playlists, typing addresses into the phone’s mapping system, or making videos and taking photos.

A California Office of Traffic Safety study this year determined that 1 out of 8 drivers on the road is paying as much attention to his or her smartphone as to the road. State road safety officials estimate that some form of distracted driving is a factor in 80 percent of crashes. That’s prompted numerous education and enforcement efforts in California aimed at reducing distracted driving.

“Smartphones and apps have made that a very difficult goal,” state traffic safety spokesman Chris Cochran said. “We recognize that it’s not going to be a quick turnaround, but a long haul.”

Drivers interviewed by The Bee said they appreciate the thrust of the law, but wonder how enforceable it will be.

James Turner is a Lyft ride-share driver whose phone represents his business lifeblood. It notifies him when someone wants a ride, tells him where to pick up passengers, and maps out the route he should take to deliver riders to their destinations.

He keeps his phone in a holder on his dashboard vent. He’s leery of the law’s impact.

“I’m not sure of the ins and outs of the new law,” Turner said. But he said he thinks he can obey it and still do his job. It takes one tap of a finger to accept a call for service, he said, and he can type in the person’s destination address while parked.

Nevertheless, he said, “How are they going to tell if you swiped (only) once?”

Teenager Carly Lederman, when told about the law a few days before it went into effect, said her main concern is whether it inhibits her use of Spotify to access and change her music playlists while driving.

Sitting at Harv’s Car Wash in Sacramento, Lederman determined that it took four finger taps to activate her phone, call up Spotify and choose a playlist. Once she has a playlist going, she said, she will be able to skip a song she doesn’t want to hear with one finger touch, but won’t be able to change to a new playlist while driving.

She said she appreciates the basic no-texting law, but questioned why the new law focuses on one area of distracted driving, while being silent on other areas.

“People eat and drive too, and look down at their food,” she said.

Anne Cunningham of Sacramento typically links her cellphone to her car’s audio system when she gets in, so she can control it with a button on her steering wheel. “If I need to locate an address, I’ll pull over,” she said.

She likes the law because she says she sees too many people poking at their phones while driving, and considers it very dangerous.

“I see drivers all the time using their cellphones,” she said.

Midtown resident Lupe Nambo’s 19-year-old cousin was killed by a texting driver two years ago. Since then, Nambo said, she puts her phone on “do not disturb” when driving so she is not tempted to answer a call or read an incoming text. She, too, listens to music on Spotify while driving, but sets her playlist beforehand and lets it run.

She said she sees plenty of drivers using their cellphones, which she said is particularly dangerous in a heavily pedestrian area such as midtown. She hopes the new law will prompt more drivers to minimize cellphone use.

“No matter how much people say they can multitask, it is hard to focus on two things at the same time,” Nambo said. “It is a big distraction.”

The law says cellphones can be mounted in two spots on the windshield: either a 7-inch square in the lower corner of the windshield on the passenger side, or a 5-inch square in the lower corner of the windshield to the driver’s left.

Drivers can also attach the phone holder to the console, or to the dashboard in a spot where it doesn’t block the drivers’ view of the road or get in the way of airbags.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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