Fine Time for Cell Users

It's been more than two years since California Motor Vehicle Code 23123 went into effect. That's the law that bans the use of cell phones while driving, unless you're over 18 and doing it hands-free with a wireless device. A year later, that law was followed by a new law making it illegal to write, send or read text-based communication while driving.

So how's it working? Chances are you're still seeing motorists everywhere ignoring the law. They're rolling around with the phone plastered to their ears making the act of driving little more than a casual endeavor. Even worse, you may have been in an accident or had a close call as a result of someone else's inattention. Frustrating isn't it?

Everyone knows the laws are in place, but few are taking them seriously. Why should they? After all, the fine for a first-time offense is only $20. Do it again and it's $50. Or is it?

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Should you find yourself on the side of the road with a cop issuing you a ticket, you might think about asking him how much the fine is. Don't even bother. It's the court, not the cop, that comes up with that number. According to the DMV website "with penalty assessments, the fine can be more than triple the base fine amount."

A motorist named Bud chimed in online saying he thought his fine would be $25. When he got his courtesy notice from the court, it was $127. Another motorist from Riverside reported a first-offense fine of $175. That's money shared by the state ($19 billion in debt) and counties.

Fines for drivers under the age of 18 tend to stay the same. I can verify that by the teenager in my own home who got a ticket in San Diego County for talking on the phone while driving. According to the DMV website, traffic accident rates for 16-19 year olds is higher than any other age group. It's been that way for a long time. Way before the advent of cell phones. Imagine how much more the risk is now. A new driver operating a 3,000-pound battering ram with one hand while yucking it up on the phone. Not a good combination.

According to a Harvard University study in 2002, 5 percent of accidents are caused by distracted cell-phone users. That was before any of us even knew what texting was. You can imagine the increase a more recent study might show.

Regardless of age, the cop on the street knows the dangers. His job is enforcement. Get caught and be ready to pay a lot more than you might have thought. Lawmakers know the dangers too, and you'll be scarce to find any of them trying to bring the fines down.

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