Look Officer, No Hands
All You Need To Know About the New Hands-Free Cell Phone Laws in California and Washington
Starting July 1, 2008, don't be surprised to see a lot of drivers talking to themselves in California and Washington. Or perhaps pulled over and talking to a policeman instead after being caught using a handheld phone. That's when laws prohibiting the use of a cell phone while driving go into effect in those two states, and the only way you'll be able to phone and drive is hands-free.
California and Washington join New York, New Jersey and Connecticut as states in which you can't hold a phone to your ear while driving, while Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana and North Carolina are all considering similar legislation. A total of 17 states also have laws preventing teen drivers from using a phone behind the wheel, and Washington, D.C., and cities such as Chicago and Detroit have their own local ordinances.
If you drive in California or Washington — or any other place with a hands-free cell phone law — and are still steering with one hand and juggling a phone in the other, we're here to help you make sense of the new laws and find a hands-free solution that works best for you, your vehicle and your budget.
A Look at the New Hands-Free Cell Phone Laws
California's Vehicle Code §23123 prohibits all drivers above the age of 18 from using a handheld cell phone, while VC §23124 makes it illegal for drivers under 18 to use a phone at all. The only exceptions apply to commercial-truck drivers (excluding pickups) and to motorists on private property or using a handheld phone to make emergency calls. The base fine for the first offense is $20, and $50 for subsequent violations, but additional penalty assessments and fines could more than triple that amount. A violation goes on your driving record, although the DMV will not assign points to your license.
For all drivers, using a handheld cell phone is a primary violation, for which an officer can pull you over. The California law doesn't prevent drivers from dialing a number by hand or specifically prohibits text messaging (although the DMV strongly discourages both), and use of a speakerphone is allowed. For those under 18, using a hands-free device is a secondary violation, meaning the driver can be cited only if stopped for another reason.
Washington's handheld cell phone law (ESSB 5037) applies to all drivers regardless of age, and a law banning text messaging (EHB 1214) went into effect on January 1, although it's not a violation if you're entering a number while driving. Emergency vehicle and tow truck drivers are exempted, as is using a handheld cell phone to report illegal activity or emergencies. The fine can be as high as $101, and under both laws an infraction doesn't become part of your driving record and isn't reported to insurance companies or employers. Both are secondary violations.
Attitudes by the Number
On the eve of these new hands-free cell phone laws taking effect, the Bluetooth device company Parrot released a survey that not only reveals statistics on awareness of the California and Washington laws in those states, but drivers' phoning habits as well. And since California is the most populated state (comprising almost 12 percent of all U.S residents) and is by far the state with the most licensed drivers (almost twice the number as second-ranked Texas), the survey provides a compelling cross-section of attitudes toward phone use behind the wheel.
Highlights from the survey include:
- Forty-one percent of drivers in California and Washington use their cell phones while driving, and 47 percent say they already use a hands-free device.
- One in four respondents age 34 or younger admitted to text messaging while driving.
- Only half of the California respondents could correctly identify July 1, 2008 as the date the hands-free law goes into effect; awareness levels in Washington State were even lower (28 percent).
- Nearly three out of 10 respondents believed the law is already in effect in Washington.
- Support for the hands-free legislation is high (75 percent), with close to three out of five regarding phone use while driving to be very dangerous (55 percent), but only two out of five say they will use their phone less (39 percent).
Getting Ready To Go Hands-Free
Given these stats, it's clear that drivers aren't simply going to hang up and drive in California and Washington come July 1, but there are plenty of hands-free options available for chatting legally. The easiest and least expensive solution is to use a speakerphone if your phone has one, or a wired earpiece. But both of these have drawbacks: With a speakerphone it may be difficult for the person on the other end to hear you over road and wind noise, and wired earpieces can be cumbersome and distracting while driving. Here are five other options to consider.
Bluetooth, a short-range wireless communication technology, has become the de facto hands-free standard for cell phones. Probably the most popular Bluetooth option is a headset that fits over the ear. (No states currently have a law against drivers using Bluetooth headsets, although in California and many other states a headset can only cover one ear.) Bluetooth headsets pair with a compatible Bluetooth phone so that calls can be conducted hands-free, although most require pushing a button on the headset to answer, end or ignore a call. While not a car-specific solution, the advantage of Bluetooth headsets, which range from the budget-priced Nokia BH-100 at $50 to Plantronics' stylish Discovery 925 for $150, is that they can be used outside of the car.
Bluetooth is offered either as a standard or optional feature in many new cars. The technology first appeared on high-end vehicles a few years ago, often controlled by steering wheel buttons and voice activation. More recently, Bluetooth has trickled down to less expensive car classes. It's offered as an option on the Nissan Versa, for example, and is standard on certain trim levels of the Sentra. Carmakers have come up with their own brand names for the technology; Dodge and Chrysler call their Bluetooth system UConnect, while Honda and Acura refer to it as Hands-Free Link. Some systems, such as those in most BMW vehicles, also download a phone's address book so that the driver can easily access contacts in it.
Bluetooth Kits and Portables
An aftermarket auto-specific solution is a Bluetooth "kit" that can be hard-wired into a car or used as a portable. With a hard-wired kit, you never have to worry about leaving it behind or losing power. They also typically provide more features, such as Caller ID and phonebook synchronization, but consequently cost more and can't be moved from car to car. An example is Parrot's 3200 LS-Color ($249, plus installation), which has a color LCD that can display Caller ID photos. Portable Bluetooth kits are usually less expensive and have fewer features but can move from car to car. They usually plug into a cigarette lighter, like the Venturi Mini ($129), which can also stream music from compatible phones, or run on rechargeable batteries, like the Sony Ericsson HCB-150 Bluetooth speakerphone ($199).
Portable Navigation Devices
If you plan to buy a portable navigation system and also want Bluetooth hands-free technology, you're in luck. Many portable navs now have the technology built in. Such units may cost a bit more, but you can justify the extra expense by not having to buy two separate devices. The Navigon 7100 ($499) offers Bluetooth along with free lifetime traffic reporting, while Alpine's Blackbird PMD-B200 ($750) has Bluetooth with Caller ID and address book access.
Bluetooth Car Stereos
Aftermarket car audio manufacturers began offering add-on Bluetooth adapters for their head units a few years back (and still do), but many now sell radios with the technology built in. So if swapping your car's radio is an option, consider one with built-in Bluetooth capability, such as Pioneer's DEH-P700BT ($310), which can pair with up to three different phones.
Law and Logic
Even if you don't drive in a state with a hands-free cell phone law, it's always safer to keep both hands on the wheel. Numerous studies have shown that drivers distracted by anything — phones, the radio, passengers — are more accident-prone, and some experts believe that even talking hands-free can be distracting enough to increase the likelihood of an accident. It all comes down to personal judgment and responsibility. So make sure you obey the law — and use logic — when driving and phoning.