New California law: Keep your hands off your smartphone while driving

File: Catherine Singer dials a cell phone in her car as a truck approaches June 2, 2003 in San Clemente.
File: Catherine Singer dials a cell phone in her car as a truck approaches June 2, 2003 in San Clemente.
David McNew/Getty Images

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Keep your hands on the wheel and off your smartphone – for any reason.

That’s the message behind a new California law that goes into effect Jan. 1 and builds on past distracted driving rules.

Drivers will be prohibited from holding and operating their phones for any purpose — unless the device is mounted to a dashboard or windshield. Even then, it must be activated with only one finger tap or swipe.

This law covers all smartphone uses, including mapping applications and music playlists. Existing law already bans drivers from texting and calling unless they use a hands-free device.

Preventing collisions

California Highway Patrol Officer Guillermo Garcia said drivers who look up information on a phone can be more distracted than those making calls.

“This isn’t just a law that was just passed because we don’t want people using their cell phones,” Garcia told Capital Public Radio. “There’s something behind it where we see a lot of collisions that are occurring because of distracted driving.”

Eighty percent of vehicle crashes involve some kind of driver inattention, according to the California Office for Traffic Safety. And up to 3,000 people nationwide are killed in crashes where driver distractions are involved.

Like many drivers, Cheyanne Muller of Sacramento said she takes her eyes off the road — on occasion — to flip through her smartphone.

“I’m definitely guilty of thumbing through like Spotify and trying to find music and stuff while I’m driving,” Muller said. “So, I think this (new law) is going to make me more aware and more conscious of setting up a playlist before I start driving.”

Will drivers take it seriously?

The law carries a $20 fine for the first offense and a $50 fine for each subsequent violation.

Muller says the law’s intentions are good, but, “I just don’t know that people are going to take it seriously because they haven’t taken texting and hands-free laws that seriously so far.”

Pausing along a busy thoroughfare near Sacramento State University, student Eric Adorno said the new law could make conditions safer for bicyclists like himself.

“I’m always looking at the person to make sure they see me before I cross,” Adorno said. “So, I think (drivers) are going to be more aware that I’m there. And that’s a good thing.”

Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, authored the new law, AB 1785. It does not apply to manufacturer-installed systems already in a vehicle.