California’s Hands-Free Law Takes a Step Back

In July 2008, the state of California banned the use of handheld electronic communication devices while driving. Some sources credit the ban with a 47 percent decline in handheld cell-phone-related deaths in California. However, the Golden State is now chipping away at its stringent law and adapting to advancing technology.

A Change Is Coming

In July 2012, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that modified the wording of the statute banning handheld mobile-phone use while driving. Though the changes were primarily focused at allowing drivers to use in-dash navigation and messaging systems, the biggest impact will be seen in the use of hands-free cell-phone devices.

While the law currently reads, "A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while using an electronic wireless communications device to write, send, or read a text-based communication," on January 1, 2013, it will continue with, "unless the electronic wireless communications device is specifically designed and configured to allow voice-operated and hands-free operation to dictate, send, or listen to a text-based communication, and it is used in that manner while driving."

A subsection of the statute presently says, "For purposes of this section, a person shall not be deemed to be writing, reading, or sending a text-based communication if the person reads, selects, or enters a telephone number or name in an electronic wireless communications device for the purpose of making or receiving a telephone call," but after the amendments take effect will conclude with "or if a person otherwise activates or deactivates a feature or function on an electronic wireless communications device."

Thoughts Behind the Change

Assemblyman Jeff Miller, R-Corona, who sponsored the bill, said he "can relate to the frustration of many Californians who were unable to communicate with friends, family and business partners while driving because it is currently against the law to operate text-based functions while driving." He said the changes "will allow Californians to communicate safely and responsibly while on the road."

The Fine Print

However, the bill has caused some confusion over what will and will not be permitted starting January 1, 2013. The California Highway Patrol says, "Hands-free is the key" and drivers will still not be allowed to:

  • Use a hand to turn on a cell phone
  • Use a hand to touch any button or icon or to open a hands-free texting app on a phone
  • Read text messages or look at directions on a phone's screen

But uncertainty lingers over popular phone functions such as looking up phone contacts to dial a number or using Apple iPhone's Siri voice-recognition software. Siri requires pressing a button to activate the program. Though simple acts, both activating Siri and looking for a number will still violate the hands-free law in 2013 and will cost a first-time offender $20 plus state and local fees. Subsequent violations of the hands-free law will carry a $50 penalty plus fees.

Because talking to another person in the car and even listening to the radio are distracting to a driver, the impact of allowing drivers to now conduct business and engage in all types of conversation while driving remains to be seen. Though the law should try to keep up with technological advances, it must always be balanced with protecting human life by trying to reduce the number of motor-vehicle accidents.