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New laws on cell phone use
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Police department personnel are frequently asked about the new cell phone use law that, according to common belief, went into effect Jan. 1. There are actually two new laws governing cell phone use: one applies to persons under 18 years of age, and the other applies to adults. The new laws take effect July 1; not Jan. 1. The following information should help with understanding these two new traffic laws.

Effective July 1, 2008, persons under 18 cannot use a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle. There are no exceptions, unless an emergency phone call must be made for fire, police, or medical assistance, or if the vehicle is being driven on private property. It does not matter if the under-age motorist is using a hands-free device, or if they are accompanied by an adult. Another aspect of this law, as it applies to underage persons, is that they are also prohibited from using mobile service devices such as pagers, texting devices, laptops, etc.

Effective July 1, adults (persons 18 years and older) may not use a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle, unless the call is made while using a hands-free device. Such devices may include a wireless "blue tooth" connection or an ear bud with a wire connected to the phone. The point of this is to keep the motorists hands as free as possible and to ensure that their field of vision is not obscured by having the phone (and hand) so close the eyes. As is the case for persons under 18, adults are also prohibited from using mobile service devices such as pagers, texting devices, laptops, etc., while operating a motor vehicle.

There are exceptions for emergency workers like fire, police, and medical personnel. Commercial vehicle operators may use the push-to-talk feature of cell phones (if so equipped), an exception that takes into account that the phone is not held close to one's head when operating as a two-way radio. To be clear, a commercial vehicle operator may not use the regular cell phone function without blue tooth or the ear bud. A commercial vehicle operator does not include pick-up trucks even if they are being used for commercial purposes.

There are fines associated with violating the cell phone use laws. The first offense will result in a "base" fine of $20. Subsequent offenses will lead to $50 fines. Keep in mind that these fines do not reflect court fees and other administrative costs. These violations will show up on a motorist's driving records, but they do not count as "points" against the record as moving violations and collisions do.

Law enforcement personnel have the authority to pull over motorists who are observed to be using cell phones without a hands-free device. They have discretion as to whether or not issue citations for the offense. I would expect that many officers will begin with warnings when the law first takes effect on July 1, but as time goes on the enforcement will become stricter.

It does seem like a motorist's life becomes more complicated each year, with each legislative session ending with new laws and requirements. So too has the traffic situation gone - ever more congested and complicated. We then add in new technological variables, such as computerized dashboards, sound systems with myriad features, in-vehicle DVD systems, numerous gauges, warning and alert devices, which all combine for added convenience but also serving as potential distractions. This is why the law makers have taken on the issue of cell phone use. The devices have a proven and distinct record as being contributors to serious traffic collisions. Some states have outright banned cell phone use while driving - with or without hands-free devices. I think if this intermediate step of limiting the way cell phones are used does not bring about the desired improvement in traffic safety, then we will likely see the outright ban. It seems to me that it is up to each of us as individuals to use common sense and safe practices so that the government does not have to step in and do it for us. I wish you safe motoring in 2008!