SACRAMENTO — Drivers beware: Californians would face a $20 to $50 fine every time they zipped down the road while holding cell phones to their ears under a bill that passed the Assembly on Thursday.
If it clears the Senate and is signed by Gov. Gray Davis, the bill will make California the second state after New York to prohibit drivers from using hand-held cell phones.
"This is no small accomplishment today after 2 1/2 years of resistance," said Assemblyman Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who sponsored the bill, AB 45.
Passage ended a losing streak for Simitian, who had similar bills killed over the years by the Assembly Transportation Committee.
The legislation faces dicey prospects in the Senate Transportation Committee, where Chairman Kevin Murray (D-Culver City) describes himself as "adamantly opposed." The bill, however, has a supporter in Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco).
"It does increase the safety factor, if you're not holding something in your hand and driving," Burton said.
Strongly opposed by several cell phone companies but backed by medical groups, firefighters, insurance firms and a couple of county sheriffs -- the bill passed the Assembly on a 41-26 vote, with heavy opposition from minority Republicans.
Many Republicans rejected the measure as too narrow. They said California needs a law that more broadly targets inattentive motorists so police can stop drivers who are eating a cheeseburger, applying mascara, disciplining children, brushing their teeth or talking on a cell phone.
Others opposed the bill as another example of "nanny government."
"I'm getting sick and tired of being told what to do on these trivial little things," said Assemblyman Doug La Malfa (R-Richvale).
Simitian, however, said that although his bill would not solve all the problems of distracted drivers, he introduced it "because it will save lives."
If it becomes law, drivers will still be able to talk on cell phones but, starting in 2005, they will have to use an ear bud, headset or speaker phone to keep their hands free.
Violators would be fined no more than $20 the first time they were caught and up to $50 for a repeat offense. Police, paramedics and other emergency workers, as well as people making emergency calls, would be exempt.
Simitian credited his success with the latest bill to increased public concern about the dangers of drivers distracted by cell phones. Support for the bill has gradually expanded to include the California State Firefighters' Assn., health-care provider Kaiser Permanente, 21st Century Insurance, the Automobile Club of Southern California and British Petroleum.
The California Highway Patrol has taken no official position on the bill, but Commissioner D.O. "Spike" Helmick endorses it, said CHP spokesman Tom Marshall.
A Davis spokesman said the governor has taken no position on the bill.
Verizon Wireless endorsed the measure, but other cell phone service providers -- including Cingular Wireless, Sprint PCS, Nextel, AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile -- oppose it.
"The bill deals with only one type of distraction, and that's the use of a cell phone," said James C. Gross, an attorney with the firm Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor, which was hired by T-Mobile to fight AB 45.
"It makes use of the cell phone a per se violation, regardless of whether you were distracted or not," he said. "Probably the worst thing is it assumes that by using a hands-free device, which is nothing more than a headset, the issues of distraction with a cell phone are eliminated.
"But if you've ever used a hands-free device, you know you need to reach to dial it, you have to reach to activate it," Gross said. "It's a false premise that this is going to eliminate accidents associated with cell phones. OK, maybe it will eliminate a few, but it's certainly not the principal cause associated with distracted driving."
The industry instead supported a bill by Assemblyman John Benoit (R-Palm Desert), that would have allowed police to cite drivers for distraction on top of another violation such as an unsafe lane change. That bill died in the Assembly Transportation Committee last month.
In March, the CHP released a study of 491,000 accidents over six months last year. Officials concluded that of 5,677 accidents blamed on distracted drivers, cell phones contributed to 11% and radios or CD players to 9%. Most of the accidents -- 67% -- fell into a category called "other," which includes day-dreaming and reading street signs.
New York banned drivers from using hand-held cell phones in June 2002 and imposed fines of up to $100 for violations, but no statistically valid studies have yet determined whether the law has reduced the accident rate, Simitian said.
Nonetheless, he said, "there is a growing mountain of evidence" that cell phone use by motorists leads to accidents.
Simitian said he is "cautiously optimistic" about the bill's chances of winning passage in the Senate.