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Simitian aims to raise fines for distracted drivers

Bill that would increase fines for drivers who text, talk on cell phones without hands-free devices passes state Senate

A proposal by state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) to raise fines for drivers who text while behind the wheel cleared a legislative hurdle Monday when the state Senate voted to approve it.

The bill, which now proceeds to the state Assembly, would increase the fine for drivers who use cell phones without a hands-free device or text while driving from $20 to $50 for a first offense. The fine for each subsequent offense would go up from $50 to $100.

More significantly, the new law would put a point on the record of drivers with more than one cell-phone violation.

Simitian estimated in a statement that when all fees and penalties are taken into account, the total cost of a first offense would be about $309.

The new bill would also apply to bicyclists, though they would face smaller fines than motorists. For bicyclists, the ticket for a first offense would be $20, while subsequent offenses would net $50 tickets.

The state Senate approved the bill 24-12.

In his statement, Simitian cited California Highway Patrol data that showed a drop of more than 40 percent in the number of driving accidents attributed to drivers distracted by cell phones in the first year of the hands-free law. He said he expects the new law to serve as a further deterrent.

"Compliance to date has been good, but there's room for improvement," Simitian said. "I think this will make a good law even better."

Simitian has previously authored three other cell-phone laws, including the 2006 law making it illegal for drivers to talk on the phone without hands-free devices, a 2007 law barring drivers under 18 to talk on the phone while driving (with or without hands-free devices) and a 2008 law banning texting while driving. But according to the Economist, the former Palo Alto mayor doesn't expect the state to adopt a full-on ban on talking while driving any time soon.

"I don't think we'll see an outright ban in my lifetime in California," Simitian told the news magazine.

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