Motorists who are in the habit of using their cellular phones while driving will soon be faced with the reality of learning new driving habits.

Senate Bill (SB) 33, a new state law, will require all motorists 18 and older to use a hands-free device when making or taking calls on a cell phone while driving, beginning July 1st.

Democratic State Senator Joseph Simitian of Palo Alto is the author of the new legislation.

“The California Highway Patrol [CHP], along with other law enforcement agencies, will be very vigilant in enforcing the new law,” California Highway Patrol spokesman Blase Austin told The Argonaut.

The use of BlackBerrys and GPS systems will still be allowed, as well as emergency service calls. Passengers in cars may use any type of cellular phone.

Motorists who are cited in violation of the new law will be fined $20 for a first offense and $50 for each subsequent conviction.

Additional administrative fees can run up to $150.

“We will be looking at [a Senate Bill 33 violation] as a primary offense,” said Austin, meaning that even if an officer observes a lesser traffic violation along with a violation of the cell phone law, the cell phone infraction would be the main offense that is cited.

Mark Redick, the president of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, supports the new law, but is not sure what effect that it will have on deterring motorists who may be distracted by a telephone conversation.

“I’m not convinced that a hands-free device will make better drivers,” he said.

Redick, a hotel executive who frequently travels around the Westside by automobile, often observes other drivers who hold up traffic while using their phones.

“Driving is a privilege,” Redick said. “And with that privilege comes a certain responsibility, and that includes not being distracted with a conversation on your phone while driving.”

Austin agrees. “We need citizens who are driving to focus their attention on the road,” the CHP spokesman said.

One cell phone accessory company is offering assistance to motorists who will need to comply with SB 33.

“Many states have passed various laws that require the use of a hands-free device while driving,” noted Matt MacAdams, founder of FreeHeadset.org. “However, these laws fail to provide any sort of assistance program to distribute the headsets required for compliance. Using a headset is an important safety issue that often gets overlooked, and our goal is to encourage people to use headsets by making it simple, affordable and convenient to obtain them.”

FreeHeadset.org, a nationwide safe driving organization that was founded five years ago, will ship a head accessory to motorists who wish to use them while they are driving. The group has provided similar instruments to motorists in Illinois and New York, which both prohibit using a non-hands-free cell phone while driving.

Participants in the FreeHeadset.org program would be required to pay only $3.94, for shipping.

Angel Sawyer, the manager of a T-Mobile Wireless store in Villa Marina Marketplace in Del Rey, has seen a growth in sales of wireless headsets over the last few weeks, with many customers anticipating the new law.

“We’ve seen an increase in hands-free devices, which we have on sale right now,” said Sawyer. “Some of our customers have mentioned that they were buying [the hands-free accessories] because of the new law.”

Drivers younger than 18 may not use a cell phone at all while driving, nor may they send text messages or use a laptop computer. Dexter O’Connell, a Venice resident, feels that this portion of the law is unfair to mi- nors.

“If you’re not going to let [adolescents] use hands-free devices, you might as well not let them drive at all,” asserted O’Connell, who at 16 is the youngest member of the Venice Neighborhood Council.

Like Redick, O’Connell thinks the new law does have benefits.

“In general, I think that the law is a good idea,” he said. “I see people who are driving distracted all the time.”

O’Connell is aware that statistics show that teenage motorists have far many more accidents than older drivers do.

“That’s true,” he conceded. “But there are some 40-year-old drivers that are just as irresponsible as 16-year-old drivers.”

Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration say 16-year-old drivers have a crash rate three times greater than 17-year-olds, five times greater than their 18-year-old peers and almost ten times higher than motorists 30 to 59.

Redick feels that the public in general uses cellular phones excessively, and many of them do so when they are behind the wheel of an automobile.

“We have become a gadget-oriented society,” said the Del Rey Neighborhood Council president. “And when you have a lot of gadgets and a lot of unchecked egos along with them, you can get a lot of distracted drivers.”

While many feel that the use of cellular phones has contributed to more immediate communication from a commercial standpoint, Redick believes that many such communications — especially while driving — are unnecessary.

“We conducted business before the explosion of cell phones in the 1990s, and we did just fine,” he pointed out. “So often, it seems that we are substituting gadgets for common sense.”

According to Austin, drivers who are often involved in collisions are found to have been using their cellular phones.

“They can be a major distraction,” Austin said.

In Los Angeles County in 2006, there were 256 automobile collisions where cell phone usage contributed to the cause of the accident, according to statistics compiled by CHP, and 145 people were injured in these crashes.

Figures for 2007 show a slightly higher number, although those numbers are provisional and the final statistics will not be available until August.

All in all, Redick believes that the law has merit.

“If it saves one life, then it will be worth it,” he said.

O’Connell thinks that the new law might cause some cell phone users to choose not to purchase the handset accessories.

“Some people might not use them at all,” he said. “It’s an additional expense.”

Austin said CHP would not be taking any violations of the new law lightly.

“We’re going to have zero tolerance,” he warned. “This will be a law like all of the other laws that motorists must obey.”

California will become the fourth state in the nation to prohibit cell phone use in vehicles without a hands-free instrument.

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