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No texting while driving among new state laws
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When the clock strikes midnight, that big ball drops, and the words to "Auld Lang Syne" are accompanied by the pops of champagne corks, the California Department of Motor Vehicles will be doing some celebrating of its own. On New Year's Day, Jan. 1, 2009, a slew of new laws will go into effect to improve driver safety, better air quality, and close loopholes frequently abused by drivers.

Perhaps the most notable of the changes to the California Vehicle Code, text messaging while driving will become illegal in 2009. This new law will compliment the restrictions that became law earlier this year which require the use of a hands-free device to talk on a cell phone while driving.

"Obviously when you are texting, your attention is diverted from driving," said California Highway Patrol Officer Eric Parsons. "You need to be able to react to things out there on the highways, especially during this busy holiday season."

In another change set to improve driver safety, those under probation for driving under the influence will now face a zero-tolerance standard for using any measurable amount of alcohol while driving. While most drivers are allowed to operate a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration of up to 0.08, a recorded level of even 0.01 for any driver serving a DUI probation will result in an immediate suspension of his or her license.

"Somebody who has already had a DUI conviction, we don't want you out there with any alcohol in your system," Parsons said.

Other changes due to become law on Jan. 1 include new criminal consequences for the forging of Clean Air Stickers, a change in the definition of what constitutes a motorcycle, allowing for heavier two- and three-wheeled vehicles to obtain motorcycle classification, and a new "Gold Star Family" license plate available to family members of those killed in armed forces actions. Additionally, law enforcement officials will now have the authority to impound vehicles for sale by unlicensed car dealers, and impose stiffer fines on those who place frivolous 9-1-1 calls.

California drivers with GPS units mounted to their windshields may be surprised to know that they are currently breaking the law. Under the current Vehicle Code, GPS units can only be mounted to the dashboard.

Come Jan. 1, however, drivers will be legally allowed to mount their GPS units on their windshields. However, in order to retain maximum driver visibility, such mounting is only allowed within a seven-inch by seven-inch square in the lower corner of the windshield on the passenger side, or within a five-inch by five-inch square in the lower corner on the driver's side.

To improve air quality, new limits will be placed on the issuance of temporary operating permits to drivers whose vehicles have yet to pass a smog check. In the past, owners were able to obtain such a permit with no cost or time limit to complete the needed repairs.

"This new law ensures that vehicles on our highways are properly registered and maintained," said DMV Director George Valverde. "We also support efforts to reduce emissions which keep Californians healthy."

Emissions from vehicles that have failed to meet the state's smog test requirements are believed to account for the production of more than two tons of harmful hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides each day in California. To cut down on the amount of time such vehicles remain on the road, the new law will allow owners of smog producing cars to obtain only one 60-day temporary operating permit, at a cost of $50.

Drivers in Stanislaus County will be partularly interested to hear that the next time they go to register their vehicles, they could be hit by higher costs. While the change is not due to go into effect on Jan. 1, as had been previously reported by some outlets, by Spring of 2009 a new San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District Fee could be assessed to drivers from San Joaquin County in the north to Kern County in the south.

The fee, which could be as much as $23 dollars, would go toward programs to reduce vehicle emissions in the Central Valley.

"There isn't a new fee as of yet," said Tom Jordan with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. "We currently do collect DMV fees that go to air quality programs, but the state gave us additional authority to expand that fee. We're going to go through a public process before we increase any fees to determine how much the increase would be and even if we're going to do so."