SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday condemned one of the most prototypical Los Angeles driving practices -- grasping a steering wheel with one hand and a cellphone with the other -- and gave a strong boost to legislative efforts to outlaw hand-held mobile phones throughout California.
During an online interview with a reporter broadcast over the Internet, Schwarzenegger called such driving distractions "terrible" and "inexcusable" and said: "We have to see if the right way to go is through a bill or any other way, but I think we must make sure that people don't use phones, because it not only endangers them but it endangers everyone else out there."
He said he has tailed his 16-year-old daughter, Katherine, while she was driving and warned her she would be taking the bus if he caught her using her cellphone while behind the wheel.
For the last five years, California lawmakers have introduced bills banning hand-held cellphones but to no avail. But in May, the measure squeezed through the state Senate, which had been the strongest place of resistance, with no votes to spare. The bill will be voted on in the Assembly next month; because that chamber approved a similar measure in 2003, its prospects are considered strong, and one committee has already endorsed it.
Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), the sponsor of SB 1613, said he was encouraged by Schwarzenegger's comments. "Anyone who drives a Hummer probably knows how important it is to keep control of your vehicle," he said in a telephone interview.
Despite mounting evidence that cellphones distract drivers, only New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and the District of Columbia have outlawed holding one while driving. Like the laws in those states, Simitian's bill would permit the operation of hands-free phones and hand-held ones in the case of emergencies -- such as the kind that concern the police, not ones involving being late to a meeting.
If approved by the Assembly and signed by Schwarzenegger, Simitian's bill would make driving while using a hand-held cellphone an infraction, punishable by a $20 fine for the first offense and $50 for subsequent ones. The rule would take effect July 1, 2008, and would be enforced by the CHP as well as local police and sheriff's departments.
Previous efforts to restrict the use of cellphones in cars have stalled in the Legislature amid disagreements about whether the problem is holding the phone or talking on any phone, even through a headset.
Kathleen Dunleavy, a spokeswoman for Sprint Nextel -- the only group formally opposing Simitian's proposal -- said: "These types of bills single out the wireless phone whereas there are many other distractions drivers encounter, including screaming kids in the back seat, eating food, putting on makeup -- so all of these are certifiable distractions, but those are not legislated."
Indeed, legislators have considered and rejected a slew of bills, including some that would outlaw "distracted driving" of any kind. But Simitian's efforts to focus on the hand-held cellphone received a boost from statistics that the California Highway Patrol began compiling in 2004.
That year, police reported 775 accidents -- including five fatalities -- in which a driver at fault was using a hand-held cellphone. There were only 28 reports of accidents caused by drivers with hands-free phones.
Preliminary statistics from 2005 show the same pattern: 1,098 accidents, including six fatalities, caused by drivers holding cellphones, and 102 crashes -- with one fatality -- caused by motorists talking through a headset or intercom.
Use of a radio or CD player was listed as the second-largest cause of inattention in 2005, contributing to 892 accidents. In both years, the most common distractions after phones and music were, in order, children, eating and reading.
Nonetheless, a number of customers at a Sprint cellular store in downtown Los Angeles reacted skeptically Wednesday to the idea of a ban.
"As long as you're paying attention to the road ... there won't be many accidents," said Edson Colmenares, 23, a packer at a shipping company. "Why go through all that trouble [of passing a law], when people still are going to do it?"
James Simmons, a 50-year-old lawyer, condemned such "useless laws." He said the greater threat comes not from how a cellphone is employed -- with or without hands -- but whether the driver allows it to puncture his or her concentration.
Simmons faulted drivers who become a hazard because they "get engrossed in conversations arguing about something, looking for directions, eating French fries, whatever."
But the store's sales manager, Daniel Martinez, called the proposed law "a great idea," adding that holding a cellphone while driving "is definitely a distraction" that not only increases accidents but contributes to slow traffic.
He said many of the shoppers at his store probably would support the law too because "a lot of our customers use headsets anyway."