California's Hands-Free Texting Law Deemed Unsafe By Critics

FILE - In this Sept. 20, 2011 file photo, a phone is held in a car in Brunswick, Maine. Texting, emailing or chatting on a ce
FILE - In this Sept. 20, 2011 file photo, a phone is held in a car in Brunswick, Maine. Texting, emailing or chatting on a cellphone while driving is simply too dangerous to be allowed, federal safety investigators declared Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011, urging all states to impose total bans except for emergencies. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach, File)

Not everyone agrees that California's new law permitting drivers to text while driving, provided that they don't use their fingers, is safe.

The National Safety Council, a roadside safety organization, wants California lawmakers to repeal the rule that went into effect Tuesday.

And a Vallejo Police Department official said he fears the amendment to the state's 2009 texting-while-driving ban could lead to distracted driving.

"Anything that takes a driver's attention away from the road, even momentarily, can be disastrous for pedestrians and other motorists," Vallejo police Lt. Lee Horton said. "There seems to be this misnomer that somehow if your eyes are on the road then you must be paying attention.

"However, if a person is engaged in texting someone, even hands-free, that is probably taking away from their ability to safely operate their motor vehicle," Horton added.

Horton isn't the only one who is concerned about the law, Assembly Bill 1536, which amends the existing law that prohibits drivers from holding a cellphone in a car. Authored by Assemblyman Jeff Miller, R-Corona, the law allows motorists to use voice-activated, hands-free devices to dictate, send or listen to text message or emails.

At issue is balancing efforts to reduce distracted driving while allowing for the use of new technology.

State law already allowed hands-free verbal calling, but the new one makes it legal to use software applications to dictate texts or listen to incoming written texts that the device "reads" aloud, California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Fran Clader said.

"This allows you to use any voice-activated device so you don't have to type to text," Clader said.

Drivers under 18 are still not permitted to use any type of cellphone in a vehicle, she said. Under the law, drivers will be allowed to touch their phones to activate or deactivate the hands-free functions.

The council, which did not formally oppose the bill as it sailed through the Legislature last year, has called for it to be repealed. Supporters of the law, however, say that blocking new technology won't work because people will still use it.

Horton said he agrees with the council's request, which stems from the theory that any texting while driving -- even hands-free texting -- might distract drivers.

"This law does seem to now allow drivers to still be visually and cognitively distracted from the road since they can now activate these hand-free systems, listen to their emails or texts and then respond verbally," Horton said. "Some folks have trouble concentrating on those things from a desk, much less behind the wheel of a moving vehicle."

Bay City News Service contributed to this article. Contact staff writer Tony Burchyns at or (707) 553-6831. Follow him on Twitter @tburchyns. ___

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