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Jurors Zing the Ding-a-Lings

June 16, 2003

Assemblyman Joe Simitian believes that a recent $7.3-million jury verdict in an auto accident case makes the case for his bill banning drivers from using hand-held cell phones. But the verdict, one of the first of its kind, provides a good argument against the Palo Alto Democrat's bill.

The Los Angeles Superior Court jury deliberated just hours June 2 before blasting a teen-aged driver who caused a serious accident in Lancaster last year because she was chatting on her cell. Off-duty police officer Keith Jewett claimed in his suit that a distracted Kelly Johnson made an abrupt, illegal U-turn in front of him, causing a crash that left him with knee injuries and a ruptured disk in his back.

Johnson's lawyers have not decided whether to appeal, but the stiff verdict stands as a stronger deterrent to driving while yakking than the finger-wagging fines of $20 to $50 in Simitian's bill. That's how the tort system is supposed to work.

Cell phone users have no corner on dangerous inattention. On any given day, motorists on the Hollywood and Golden State freeways can be seen using the rear-view mirror as a rolling vanity, applying mascara, shaving or flossing. Then there's the "Look Ma, no hands" folks who act as if their cars drive on auto pilot. Why else would they think they could steer or shift gears with coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other? Maybe that terrier in their lap holds the wheel.

These stupid driver tricks got daily display long before cell phones -- with predictable metal-crunching consequences. Simitian's AB 45, however well intentioned, homes in on just one problem. To be sure, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded recently that all cell phones, including the hands-free units, were so distracting that novice drivers should be prohibited from using them. New York state already bars drivers from using hand-held phones in a moving car; New Jersey is considering similar legislation.

Simitian's proposal, which cleared the Assembly and is now before the Senate, would let drivers talk with hands-free devices. He's absolutely right that cell phones are a big problem, and California commuters know it. They also should know that the state vehicle code targets reckless or inattentive drivers, including unconscious cell talkers.

Though they could pursue thoughtless drivers even more aggressively, troopers and police can and do issue citations that carry stiff fines, sometimes as high as $300. But that's pay phone change compared with the whopping penalties that angry juries can dish out. It's not that the courts need a flood of new cell phone cases. But a few of those verdicts may do more than laws can to persuade numb and dumb cell phone users to hang up and watch the road.

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