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Handsfree cellphone law in effect

Two new laws placing restrictions on wireless telephones while driving took effect July 1 with a couple of agencies offering a grace period.

The first prohibits all drivers from using a handheld wireless telephone while operating a motor vehicle. Motorists 18 and over, however, may use a hands-free device.

The second law prohibits drivers under the age of 18 from using any type of wireless telephone, even a hands-free device, while operating a motor vehicle.

Passengers are not affected by either law.

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Once the new laws take effect, law enforcement officers can pull a driver over strictly for using a handheld wireless telephone.

“Anything that reduces the chance that you will be distracted while driving, we’re going to be all for it,” said Tom Marshall, spokesman for California Highway Patrol headquarters in Sacramento. “Of distracted-driving crashes, the leading cause was cell phones.”

Though the new laws governing cell phones while driving do allow use of hands-free devices by motorists, “We still discourage people from carrying on conversations, even if it is hands-free,” said Marshall. “We really prefer you use that time to relax and drive your car.”

Marshall said the new wireless driving laws probably won’t be difficult to enforce. However, he said an officer must actually observe someone using a handheld device while driving in order to cite them. Officers can also cite drivers under age 18 for using any type of cell phone device while driving. But they cannot pull them over for that. “They (police) don’t have probable cause to know you’re under 18,” he said.

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There are plenty of hands-free wireless phone devices available at local electronic retailers at relatively cheap prices, some as low as $10.

Andy Ahlgren, an associate at Radio Shack, La Jolla’s local provider of Cingular, Sprint, Nextel and other electronic devices at 915 Pearl St., said demand for hands-free cell phone devices is increasing as the July 1 start-up date for the new wireless driving laws draws closer.

“We’ve been beating people over the head about it (getting hands-free devices) to head off any disaster,” said Ahlgren. “There are a number of different models, different brands, people are asking for. There are also the Bluetooth wireless headphones that we’re selling.”

Ahlgren said Radio Shack carries two or three different Bluetooth models ranging in price from $20 to $30. “Just about all phones now have Bluetooth capability,” said Ahlgren, who added the technology exists now to channel a wireless phone conversation through a car speaker microphone, as well.

Many consumers are also becoming increasingly concerned about the potential for sustaining damage from electromagnetic radiation derived from cell phones held close to their ears. “They’re looking for devices that help to get the phone away from their head,” said Ahlgren, “down in their briefcase or in a woman’s pocketbook.”

There is a provision in the laws for emergencies. Under such circumstances, drivers are allowed to make emergency calls to a law enforcement agency, a medical provider, the fire department or other emergency services.

The base fine for the first offense for the new law is $20, $50 for subsequent convictions. According to the Uniform Bail and Penalty Schedule, with the addition of penalty assessments, a first offense is $76 and a second offense is $190. Wireless telephone law penalties do not add points to driver licenses. The conviction will appear on a driving record but the violation point will not be added.

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Somewhat counterintuitively, the new law does not prohibit dialing or text messaging while driving.

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