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Cell phone penalties would rise under pending bill
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SACRAMENTO (AP) — The fine for illegally using a cellphone while driving in California would increase from $20 to $30 under a bill approved by the state Senate on Monday, although the actual cost would climb to at least $199 for first offenders once court fees are collected.

California's existing ban on drivers' use of hand-held devices would be more effective with a higher penalty, said the bill's author, Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto. The money would go for driver education programs.

With court and other fees, a first offense currently costs at least $159. Gov. Jerry Brown last year vetoed Simitian's bill to raise the base fine to $50, saying penalties already included in California's four-year-old law should be enough to deter illegal cellphone use.

The fine for subsequent offenses would increase from $50 to $60 under Simitian's bill. The actual cost to drivers would rise to $371 for each additional offense because it also would add a point on a driver's record, triggering additional fees.

The bill also would ban bicyclists from texting or talking on a hand-held phone, imposing a $20 fine.

Sen. Doug La Malfa, R-Willows, objected to the new measures, saying law enforcement officers should focus on looking for drivers who are distracted or driving erratically, rather than looking for hand-held cellphones.

"People out there that live with this think it's a pretty trivial thing," La Malfa said. "The fines are huge, the burden is high. You talk to just regular people out there, most of them hate this ban."

Simitian said surveys have shown the current law is popular with motorists and has reduced fatalities and accidents.

A University of California, Berkeley study released in March found that the number of deaths among drivers using hand-held phones fell to 53 in the two years after the ban took effect, compared with 100 in the two years prior. The number of injuries dropped from 7,720 to 3,862 during the same period.

An unrelated survey last summer found 40 percent of drivers said they talked less while driving because of the ban, even if they have a legal handsfree device.

"It means that every day a couple folks are going to go home and sit down to dinner with their families who otherwise wouldn't have made it through the day," Simitian said, citing one survey on the effect of the existing law.

SB1310 was sent to the Assembly on a 24-9 vote.