LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Next week California will try to wrest cell phones from the hands of drivers, telling everyone from movie starlets and dot-com millionaires to surfers and soccer moms that conversations behind the wheel must be on a headset.
Several U.S. states and some two dozen countries around the world already have restrictions on mobile phones while driving but now such a law has come to California -- where the car is king and much of life is spent on the famously snarled freeways.
Californians interviewed by Reuters mostly supported the law requiring hands-free phones in cars and outlawing cell phones entirely for drivers under 18, which takes effect on Tuesday -- though they were puzzled by a loophole that allows seemingly more dangerous text messaging.
Others cast a jaundiced eye on lawmakers, who they blame for failing to build more freeways or public transportation in the face of increasingly gridlocked roads in the nation’s most populous state and say hands-free conversations are no safer.
“I can’t believe that (Californians) will put up with all these nanny, nit-picking laws,” KFI-AM radio talk-show host John Kobylt told Reuters.
“It’s stupid because we’ve gone over about seven different studies and each one of them says it’s the conversation that distracts you, not holding the phone,” he said.
Besides, he said, many Californians are forced to use their cars as offices while stuck on the freeway.
State Sen. Joe Simitian, who authored the bill, disputes those studies and says keeping both hands on the wheel is always safer. He expects his law to save hundreds of lives.
“There are more and more people out there on the highway and the CHP (California Highway Patrol) has collected data every year showing that cell phones are the number one cause of distracted drivers,” Simitian said.
Fines for a first offense are $20 plus fees and $50 plus fees for subsequent convictions.
The Democratic lawmaker is working on a follow-up bill to outlaw text messaging in the car, which he says wasn’t an issue when he began working on the first one in 2001.
Connecticut, New Jersey and New York already prohibit drivers from talking on hand-held cell phones, along with some two dozen countries around the world. In New Jersey, police have issued 35,000 tickets for using a hand-held phone or texting while driving since the law went into effect March 1.
But the random sampling of Californians interviewed by Reuters expressed ambivalence.
“On the one hand I don’t want people crashing into each other, but I‘m not going to go get an ear thing,” 38-year-old bank employee Jason Fischer said in Los Angeles. “I’ll give it up and then one day I’ll make a call and get a ticket. I don’t want a headset. I‘m too lazy to get a headset.”
Rachel Kucsulain, 36, said she rides her bike to her job as an administrative assistant in Los Angeles and wants cell phones taken out of the hands of drivers.
“I’ve almost been hit multiple times. I think it’s totally a threat,” Kucsulain said. “Two blocks from here someone (on a cell phone) turned on me as I was crossing a crosswalk. They were only inches away from me. It’s just distracting.”
Additional reporting by Jon Hurdle in Philadelphia; Editing by Mary Milliken and Eric Beech