Dick Messer, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles,… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
SACRAMENTO — Dick Messer likes driving around Los Angeles with Peaches, his Pomeranian, in his lap and thinks it's ridiculous that a proposal in the Capitol would make him an outlaw for doing so.
The proposal, which would prohibit drivers from carrying "live animals" on their laps behind the wheel, is one of several that would regulate who can drive, when, where and how.
"It's just nuts, the stuff legislators come up with instead of dealing with the real problems facing the state: crime, the economy, the . . . budget deficit," said Messer, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
One lawmaker wants to restrict driving by truants and high school dropouts. Another would regulate where global positioning system devices can be installed. Another wants a new state committee to study the danger that silent-running electric cars pose to blind pedestrians.
These ideas follow new laws banning computer and cellphone use by teenagers while driving, restricting adult drivers to hands-free cellphones, and barring smoking in cars when minors are present. The blitz of existing and proposed laws regulating use of the automobile, symbol of freedom, has Messer and other Californians pounding on their steering wheels.
"They want to button down our mobility," said Messer, 67, who understands the lure and lore of the auto. He owns 24, including a 1939 Plymouth and a new natural-gas-powered Honda, and oversees 300 other vehicles at the museum.
"They want to force you into public transportation," he said. "The problem is, we don't have any."
There are 33.5 million registered vehicles in California. Assemblyman Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) said that explained the cornucopia of car-related legislation.
"We're a state that gets around by car. We are a car culture," said Huff, who is a member of the Assembly Transportation Committee. "Couple that with legislators who think government is the answer to everything, and you end up with the perfect storm."
Assemblyman Bill Maze (R-Visalia) said he introduced the bill against lap dogs after a car passed him with two large canines hanging out a window and a third in the driver's lap.
"It's a very dangerous thing for the drivers and others," Maze said. "It's a distraction."
Maze is unfazed by national radio personality Rush Limbaugh's derision of his measure. "Talk about the land of fruits and nuts," Limbaugh told listeners recently.
And Maze doesn't care that other critics have ridiculed the measure as the "Paris Hilton bill," after the celebrity partygoer who often totes a tiny dog with her.
"I don't know anything about her," Maze said.
There were at least 128 accidents in the state last year in which a factor was inattention caused by animals in the vehicle, according to the California Highway Patrol. They included one fatality and 68 injuries.
Maze noted that a crash last month in Modesto involved a woman driving with her cat.
"It scratched her in the face and she went out of control and hit a power pole," Maze said.
There are 69.1 million U.S. households with pets, and 84% of families travel with a pet in their automobile, Maze said, citing a 2006 survey by the American Pet Product Manufacturers Assn. Under his bill, drivers caught with a pet in their lap would face fines ranging from $35 to nearly $150.
A number of Maze's colleagues have sided with him on the issue: The Assembly passed his measureCalifornia Highway Patrol and sent it to the Senate for consideration.
Huff voted no, saying, "The government doesn't need to butt its nose into what people do in their automobiles. People need to be responsible drivers."
Huff also voted against a proposal by Assemblyman Gene Mullin (D-San Mateo) that would use autos as an incentive against dropping out of high school. Mullin's measure would require that before someone 16 or 17 could be licensed, they present proof that they attend school or have earned a high school diploma, or have a signed statement from parents or an employer that the use of a vehicle is necessary.
Noting that some teenagers have to work, Huff said the state shouldn't mix driving privileges with education. But the rest of the Assembly Transportation Committee members voted to recommend the legislation to the full Assembly.
Another bill, by Assemblywoman Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield), would use driving privileges to combat truancy. It would allow school districts to recommend to the DMV that a student's license or learner's permit be suspended until the age of 18 if the student misses 15 consecutive days of school or 20 days in a semester, or is deemed a habitual truant.
Fuller said the bill would make sure students and parents talked to school officials about alternatives to missing school.
"The cost is great if we don't do it," said Fuller, noting that her measure has an exemption for situations in which loss of driving privileges would create financial hardship.