California drivers will be allowed to text when they’re behind the wheel of a car, as long as they’re using a hands-free device, and with some restrictions.
Under a bill signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday, beginning Jan. 1, drivers will be able to send, dictate and listen to text messages, but only if they’re using a voice-activated device attached to a cellphone by a headset or Bluetooth earpiece, or a program inside a vehicle, like OnStar.
AB 1536, sponsored by California Assemblyman Jeff Miller, R-Corona, will allow Californians to text behind the wheel for the first time since texting while driving was outlawed more than three years ago.
“There’s all this brand-new technology coming out that people want to take advantage of and use, and under current law they are unable to do that,” Miller told the San Jose Mercury News.
But the San Jose Mercury News reports that there’s some confusion over the new law, including which devices will be legal.
Aides at the assemblyman’s office said it even with the new law, using Apple’s voice-activated Siri would still be illegal, even when speaking a message directly into Siri.
The California Highway Patrol says drivers who simply turn on a cellphone, or select a phone’s hands-free text app, can still be ticketed, resulting a $100-plus fine. The same thing goes for using your phone to read texts.
“The phone can’t be in your hands,” said CHP spokeswoman Jaime Coffee. “Hands-free is the key.”
The law signed Friday comes after a 2006 bill, authored by California Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, made it illegal to talk on a hand-held cellphone while driving.
That law contributed to a reduction in the number of traffic deaths, according to a University of California, Berkeley study released in March.
The study by the university’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center examined deaths for two years before and two years after the cellphone ban took effect in July 2008.
It found that overall traffic deaths dropped 22 percent, while deaths blamed on drivers using hand-held cellphones were down 47 percent. Deaths among drivers who use hands-free phones dropped at a similar rate.
“The most important thing to do when you’re driving is to drive,” Coffee said. “It does take your attention away, whether it’s hands free or not.”
California is one of 39 states that bans texting while driving, though it’s unclear if any of the others allow hands-free texting.