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Drivers, others give views on hands-free cell phone law

LA Daily News
Adolfo Flores

If Terry Miller had been asked six months ago how many Bluetooth systems his Galpin Ford dealership was installing in vehicles, he would have said just about none.

But now as a California law requiring motorists to use hands-free cell phones is set to start Tuesday, the general manager's answer is closer to 300 or 600 a month.

And Krystal Amina, a sales representative for Sprint in Woodland Hills, said that while her store sold a total of just about four Bluetooth systems all of last month, it's now averaging about 15 a day.

"Everybody wants a Bluetooth, that's for sure," said Amina. "Before, not a lot of people bought them. Now they're in high demand."

Under the law passed in 2006, chatting on a handheld cell phone will be considered a primary offense for drivers - which means police can pull over and cite anyone they see violating the law.

Motorists caught chatting without a hands-free device will be slapped with a $20 fine for the first offense and $50 for repeat offenses. Adding other penalty and court fees will bring the penalty to $93 for the first offense and $201 for subsequent ones.

But many think the legislation will improve California's clogged and dangerous roadways.

"I think the law will definitely make the roads safer," Miller said. "Talking on your cell phone while driving is like talking to someone in the back seat except you're looking at your phone."

Still, not everyone is happy about the new legislation - even though they are complying.

Jason Freud, a 28-year-old student at California State University, Northridge, has a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone as well as a Bluetooth-enabled GPS system in his car.

But he doesn't believe the law will necessarily make the state's roads any safer.

"I think that using a hands-free device is just as dangerous, because instead of people playing with their phones they're adjusting their hands-free device," Freud said.

"If they really want to make it safer, they should just get rid of cell phones all together."

According to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, about 22.5 million registered drivers will have to use a hands-free device starting Tuesday if they want to avoid fines.

San Francisco-based Headsets.com has set aside 730 Discovery 925 headset devices and will give them free of charge to drivers who receive a citation for talking on their cell phones. The devices are valued at $145.

"Some people who get a ticket might not be able to afford a headset. We feel it's not fair to get another ticket so we decided to give drivers a free headset after they get their first offense," said Mike Faith, CEO of Headsets.com.

Faith received a citation for using a cell phone in his native England back in 1999.

"This might sound weird for a guy selling headsets, but I think they should actually put their phones down altogether," he added. "It creates a hazardous environment."

A study by the Public Policy Institute of California projects that after the law goes into effect there will be 300 fewer traffic fatalities every year. Currently there are more than 4,000 traffic deaths a year.

But the study also found that cell-phone ownership contributes to traffic deaths primarily under bad weather conditions or when roads are wet.

Still, Tarzana resident Michael Rutherford, 50, said using hands-free devices will be a step toward better safety.

"People need to keep their eyes on the road and being hands-free is definitely a good start," said Rutherford, who bought a Bluetooth device several months ago.

"The new law is also great for the people selling Bluetooths."

Anthony Busse, a Verizon authorized agent who manages several stores in Southern California and Las Vegas, expects sales of hands-free devices to keep rising once the law goes into effect.

"We've made a Bluetooth order every week this month," Busse said. "Before, we used to order them once or twice a month."

While sales have risen for hands-free devices, so have the number of Bluetooths being stolen at some retailers, said Mohammad Ahsan, a salesman at Fry's Electronics in Woodland Hills.

"People are buying Bluetooths like crazy," Ahsan said. "But people have also started stealing more Bluetooths than before."

The California Highway Patrol has been trying to educate drivers about the coming changes in the past few weeks, including with an informational commercial, said spokesman Thomas Marshall.

"We've also received a flood of calls from people with questions," Marshall said. "At this point, we feel like we've talked to every person in California personally."

AT&T also has been sending text messages to customers, reminding them to use a hands-free device when driving starting next week.

Another law that goes into effect at the same time also makes it illegal for any driver under 18 to use a cell phone - even if it's hands-free - while driving.

At the beginning of the year there were about 945,393 drivers between the ages of 16 and 19, according to the DMV.

"From our viewpoint, when you're a new driver you need to drive without any distractions to build on your driving skill," said the CHP's Marshall.

"I know teenagers get preached to a lot, but this is for everyone's safety."

Kevin Linares, 17, of Highland Park said he expects to start driving this summer. Although he doesn't believe anyone should talk on the phone while driving, he said he thinks the law targeting teenage drivers is unfair.

"What about those people who are getting their licenses when they're 18 and those who get their licenses later?" Linares asked. "Don't we all pass the same test?"

Researchers at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety studied North Carolina, which has had a similar law in effect for more than a year.

Researchers found that 11 percent of teen drivers used cell phones as they left school, one to two months before the law went into effect. About five months after the law took effect, the number of teen drivers using a cell phone rose to 12 percent.

"Cell-phone bans for teenage drivers aren't effective based on what we saw in North Carolina," said Anne McCartt, senior vice president of research for the institute and an author of the study.

"Drivers with phones to their ears aren't hard to spot, but it's nearly impossible for police officers to see hands-free devices or correctly guess how old drivers are."

But state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said he isn't discouraged by such studies or critics of the law.

Sixteen- and 17-year-olds are more likely to be involved in a collision than other drivers, he said, and cell phones only drive up those odds.

"I certainly believe this law is going to be enforced," O'Connell said. "We know that technology rules kids' lives, but it should never take their lives."

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