DennisBeaverJuly 01, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

The new cell phone law which went into effect on Tuesday led to an unbelievable number of e-mails and calls from worried parents as well as their teenage children, all asking the same basic question: How can we legally make a cell phone call while driving?

Additionally, a surprising number of questions concerned Bluetooth devices.

Regardless of age, our brains can’t multitask

Tiffany, a 17-year-old college freshman at Cal State Humboldt, e-mailed, “I do not see why they should be so hard on cell phone use by young drivers. I am a good driver with or without using a cell phone, and know what’s happening on the road. Sure, I’ve seen other drivers with half a brain talking on their cell phones totally unaware of what was going on in traffic, but I am not like them.”

I ran her statement by someone who knows brains, teenage and older, Dr. Norman Liu, who practices radiology in Southern California. His views correlate with both common sense and current science.

“We all know the old saying about not being able to do two things at one time,” Liu said. “Brain scans reveal that talking on the cell phone impairs other activities requiring attention, focus and good judgment. It is well established that judgment depends on the brain being mature — and the younger (up to about age 25) those areas of the brain responsible for judgment, and evaluation of consequences, is less mature. That is simple, well-established neurology.

“Computers multitask, but none of us — regardless of age — are wired up that way at the factory. Research shows that it is much more difficult for drivers talking on a cell phone — even hands-free — to see and understand crucial things going on around them. They drive through red lights, fail to turn at the correct street, and often forget details of what they talked about on the phone! The younger you are, the worse it is,” Liu added.

Under 18 and you’re driving? Forget it!

Here’s how the law works for drivers under age 18: Unless it is a true emergency — fire, police or medical — you may not text, talk on a cell phone, pager, laptop computer, or any other “electronic communication or mobile service device, including hands-free.”

So, in plain English, if you are driving and under 18, you just can’t make a cell phone call. End of story. But it is legal for passengers to make those calls.

However, don’t forget that with California’s Provisional Driver’s License, there are a lot of restrictions on all drivers under age 18, including the age of passengers in your car.

Over age 18 — No to handheld, yes to hands-free

For drivers over age 18, these are the commonly asked questions: How do I legally make a cell phone call? Must I purchase an expensive accessory? May I dial a number while I’m driving?”

While there are some exceptions to this law (commercial truck operators, farming, emergency workers) for all other drivers it is illegal to use a handheld phone. Should a traffic officer see you holding a cell phone to your ear, this is legally sufficient cause to be pulled over, either warned or given a traffic citation.

While the fines aren’t much — usually a total fine of under $100 — expect your insurance rates to be raised as the ticket will be reported to the Department of Motor Vehicles. While not yet a point count against your license, you can bet some auto insurance companies will consider this violation as increasing a driver’s risk of being involved in an auto accident, very similar to a DUI or charge of reckless driving.

So, if we want to save on insurance, there are other, legal ways to make a cell phone call while driving, as I’ll discuss in a moment.

But the cell phone law, in my opinion, has one enormous flaw — hysterical if it were not such a dangerous oversight. Here’s why: It is perfectly legal to dial a wireless telephone while you are driving!

Go figure. With many of the cell phones on the market today, it is hard enough finding the right key, let alone attempting to dial when driving. Ever try dialing a cell phone number while driving in San Francisco rush hour traffic? Take your eyes off the road for a second, and it won’t be Rice-A-Roni. It will be Crash-A-Roni.

Hands-free makes it legal

“Hands-free” is either (1) a headset covering one ear and a microphone, connected via a cable to the cell phone, or (2) a speaker phone built into the phone itself, a vehicle option, outboard accessory, or one of these incredibly cool Bluetooth earpieces. Hands-free makes it legal to use a cell phone while driving.

Bluetooth is a short-range radio “link” between cell phones, computers or an earpiece. With Bluetooth you place and answer calls without touching the cell phone. It is an amazing technology, and when built into a car, uses the sound system, so calls are extremely clear.

For years, we all got along very well without cell phones, but now it’s considered a necessity. One CHP commander I spoke with put it this way: “We see so many accidents caused by good people who did not realize how dangerous it is to talk on that cell phone while driving.”

Even if the law says that we can, the real question is: Should I?

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.