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New laws crack down on distracted drivers

U.S. and state regulations seek to curb drivers' use of cellphones, and some states target driving under the influence.

January 01, 2012|By Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times
  • Independent taxi driver Matthew Bahar places his cellphone back in a cradle inside his taxi while waiting to pickup customers at Hobby Airport in Houston. The National Transportation Safety Board declared Tuesday that texting, emailing or chatting on a cellphone while driving is just too dangerous to be allowed anywhere in the United States and is urging all states to impose total bans except for emergencies.
Independent taxi driver Matthew Bahar places his cellphone back in a cradle… (David J. Phillip / AP Photo )

If your New Year's resolutions didn't include hanging up that cellphone when behind the wheel, several states plan to do it for you. A slew of new laws taking effect this year aims to curb distracted driving.

Beginning Tuesday, all commercial drivers — including truck and bus drivers — are banned from using hand-held and push-to-talk cellphones.

The new law will affect an estimated 4 million commercial drivers, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which instituted the ban.

New automotive laws are taking effect in a variety of states too.

In Nevada, those who violate a 3-month-old law that bans texting while driving will receive tickets instead of warnings; a grace period for residents to familiarize themselves with the new law had ended as of Sunday. Authorities in Pennsylvania will begin enforcing a similar ban in March.

In Oregon, a loophole will be closed in the state's ban on using cellphones while driving.

A portion of the law allowed a driver to use a cellphone if it "is necessary for the person's job." Intended to exempt law enforcement and emergency workers, the provision also allowed some motorists to have their citations dismissed by claiming they were using the phone for work.

The new law allows only emergency responders and roadside assistance workers to use hand-held cellphones. All drivers can use hands-free devices.

The National Transportation Safety Board last month called for a nationwide ban on drivers' use of portable electronic devices. The agency urged states to ban the nonemergency use of hands-free devices as well as hand-held cellphones.

NTSB Chairwoman Debbie Hersman, speaking at an agency board meeting in December, said the exponential growth of cellphone use has made distracted driving a rapidly growing problem. In 2010, more than 3,000 people died in crashes believed to have been caused by distracted driving, according to the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"How many more lives will be lost before we, as a society, change our attitudes about the deadliness of distractions?" Hersman asked.

Under a new law in Illinois, all back-seat passengers will be required to wear seat belts, except those in taxis or emergency vehicles. If caught, passengers face fines beginning at $25.

Another new Illinois law permits school bus companies to require drivers whom they suspect of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol to submit to testing. If drivers fail the test, or refuse to take it, they can lose their school bus permit for three years.

In California, children will be required to use a car seat until they are 8 years old or at least 4 feet, 9 inches tall. The previous law required children to use car seats until they were 6 years old or weighed 60 pounds. Fines for violations begin at $475.

In Oregon, anyone convicted of drunk driving — including first offenders — will be required to install an ignition interlock in their cars. The devices check the driver's blood alcohol level before the engine will start and keep checking it, at random, for the engine to keep running.

Oregon will also require engines in large commercial trucks to be turned off while idling to reduce air pollution.

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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