Simitian: ‘Hands-free’ law is saving lives

State Sen. Joe Simitian is declaring victory now that a new study shows a steep dropoff in distracted-driving deaths since his hands-free phone law took effect for California drivers.

PUT THE PHONE DOWN, DIPSTICKThe analysis, conducted by UC-Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center and released by the state Office of Traffic Safety, examined state crash records two years before and two years after Simitian’s hands-free legislation took effect, and found that overall traffic deaths declined by 22 percent, while hand-held cell phone driver deaths went down 47 percent.

California High Patrol data from the first year of the hands-free law’s implementation had shown a 20 percent reduction in fatalities and collisions in California compared to the annual average over the previous three to five years, Simitian noted – the largest year-to-year drop in collisions in California’s history.

“That’s 700 fewer fatalities and 75,000 to 100,000 fewer collisions each year,” Simitan, D-Palo Alto, said in a news release today. “It’s clear that most California drivers ‘get it.’ They understand just how dangerous distracted driving is, and most are doing their part to make the highway safer.”

“But we also know that there are still too many drivers texting and talking on hand-held cell phones. For drivers who still haven’t gotten the message, studies like this help underscore the fact that no phone call or text is worth the cost of a life.”

Simitian’s SB 1613 – signed into law in 2006 and taking effect in July 2008 – made it illegal for California drivers to talk on a cell phone while driving without a hands-free device. He also authored SB 33 of 2007, which bars drivers under age 18 from texting, talking on a cell phone or using any “mobile service” technology while driving, even with a hands-free device; and SB 28 of 2008, which makes it illegal for California drivers to send, read, or write text messages while driving.

Now Simitian is carrying SB 1310, which would increase fines applied under his earlier bills. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill last year, but Simitian “hopes to find common ground with the governor this year” – and certainly hopes this new study will help.


New law cracks down on ‘robotripping’

California on New Year’s Day becomes the first state to bar the sale of over-the-counter cold and cough medications containing dextromethorphan (DXM) to minors.

Senate Bill 514 by state Senator Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, requires store clerks to check ID so no one under 18 buys these medications, which cause a potentially life-threatening high when consumed in high doses. A violation of the new law will be an infraction, punishable only by a fine; the law provides an exception for sale to minors with a prescription.

The Senate approved the bill 38-0 in May and the Assembly approved it 49-23 in August; Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law later that month.

DXM is known by the street names robo, skittles, Triple C, Vitamin C, dex, red paint, and tussin. Because abusers commonly use Robitussin to get high, the act of abusing is often called “robotripping” or “robodosing.”

Taken in high doses, DXM causes intoxication, hallucinations, seizures, loss of motor control, and “out of body” sensations similar to PCP and LSD. Simitian’s office says that, according to WebMD and the Consumer Healthcare Productions Association, one in 10 teenagers say they’ve used DXM to get high, making it more popular than LSD, cocaine, ecstasy or meth. The California Poison Control System reports that DXM abuse calls for children under age 17 have increased 850 percent in the past decade, making DXM abuse the most commonly reported type of abuse in this age group.

Seizures and liver failure can occur from drinking just one package of over-the-counter cough medication, and DXM becomes more dangerous when mixed with alcohol or other drugs.

Joe Simitian“Until now, these drugs have been easy for young people to obtain,” Simitian said in a news release. “By putting age limitations on these drugs, we’re communicating to kids and their parents that, when used inappropriately, these are dangerous drugs with serious consequences.”

The idea from the law was a winner from Simitian’s 2004 “There Oughta Be a Law” contest, submitted by Wayne Benitez and Ron Lawrence, both with the Palo Alto Police Department at the time; Lawrence is now the Rocklin’s police chief. A similar bill had died in 2004. “Today the extent and seriousness of the problem is better understood,” Simitian said.


Study: Use red-light cameras for safety, not cash

Outsourcing traffic enforcement to red-light and speed camera vendors can spell trouble for municipalities, according to a new report from a consumer watchdog group.

The report by the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) finds that about half the states have enabled use of automated traffic cameras, letting local governments contract with private companies to install the equipment and issue citations. But citizens have often objected to privatized forms of traffic enforcement and many municipalities have found themselves in legal trouble when they attempt to change or update these contracts, the report says.

Engineering alternatives, such as lengthening yellow lights, are often the best way to reduce injuries from red-light running, the report says, but such solutions often get short shrift from ticket revenue-hungry contractors and municipalities.

“Automated traffic ticketing tends to be governed by contracts that focus more on profits than safety,” CALPIRG Legislative Director Pedro Morillas said. “Too often, local governments are taken for a ride by red-light camera vendors overly focused on their bottom line instead of public safety.”

State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, authored a bill this year that would’ve reformed the use of traffic cameras by requiring local governments to post signs near where the cameras are installed; develop uniform guidelines for screening and issuing tickets from the cameras; make formal fact-findings to justify future installations; to ignore revenue, beyond the system’s own costs, when considering whether to install such systems; and so on.

SB 29 had overwhelming bipartisan support, approved by the Assembly on a 70-4 vote and by the state Senate on a 38-0 vote. Yet Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill this month, writing that installation and maintenance of such camera systems “is something that can and should be overseen by local elected officials” without state interference.

But CALPIRG’s report recommends stronger guidelines to ensure that automated traffic enforcement programs focus on improving road safety, not ticket revenue. It says contracts between local governments should carefully compare cameras with alternatives, and their contracts with vendors should be scrutinized for conflicts of interest or any direct or indirect incentives for vendors based on the volume of tickets issued or fines collected. Public control over traffic policy and engineering decisions must be retained, the report says, and the contract process should be completely transparent and open, including public participation and information about finding online data on automated ticketing for each intersection.

“We’ve already run into controversy over the use of red-light cameras here in California,” Morillas said. “We need to learn from past mistakes to keep our roadways from becoming ATMs for private companies.”


Brown vetoes bill to beef up hands-free law

Gov. Jerry Brown has vetoed a Bay Area lawmaker’s bill to beef up the law against handling cell phones while driving.

SB 28 by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, would’ve increased fines for motorists who use cell phones without a hands-free device or who text while driving; subsequent violations would’ve been made punishable by addition of a “point” on motorists’ driving records.

Simitian issued a news release calling Brown’s veto “a lost opportunity to save more lives,” and said he would “review the Governor’s veto message to see if there is any room for compromise in the coming year.”

“I’m disappointed,” he said, “but the Governor gets the last word. I understand and accept that. My job now is to figure out where do we go from here.”

The Assembly had approved SB 28 on a 51-21 vote; the state Senate had approved it 23-13. The governor’s office has not yet made a veto message available.

Simitian said California Highway Patrol data from the first year of the hands-free law’s implementation shows a 20 percent reduction in fatalities and collisions in California compared to the annual average over the previous three to five years. That translates into at least 700 fewer fatalities and 75,000 to 100,000 fewer collisions each year. The CHP data also show an immediate drop of 40-50 percent in the number of distracted driving accidents attributed to cell phones after the law went into effect.

And research by the AAA Automobile Club of Southern California and the State’s Office of Traffic Safety suggests a 60 to 70 percent compliance rate with California’s hands-free driving law, Simitian said, implying a more significant deterrent could improve compliance and enhance public safety.

Simitian authored SB 1613 of 2006, which made it illegal for California drivers to talk on a cell phone without a hands-free device while driving, effective July 2008; SB 33 of 2007, which prohibited drivers under the age of 18 from texting, talking on a cell phone or using any “mobile service” technology while driving, even with a hands-free device , also effective July 2008; and SB 28 of 2008, which made it illegal for all drivers in California to send, read, or write text messages while driving, effective January 2009.

UPDATE @ 9:42 A.M.: Even as I posted this, the governor’s veto message arrived. “I certainly support discouraging cell phone use while driving a car, but not ratcheting up the penalties as described by this bill,” the governor wrote. “For people of ordinary means, current fines and penalty assessments should be sufficient deterrent.”


Red-light camera regulation bill moves forward

A bill to regulate “red-light cameras” – including provisions to make it easier to challenge unjustified traffic tickets – passed the state Senate today on a unanimous 36-0 vote; it now goes to the Assembly.

SB 29 by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, would require that camera locations be chosen on safety considerations, and not on their potential to generate revenue; a traffic violation notice intended to identify the driver in an alleged violation – a so-called “snitch ticket” – must make clear that owners of vehicles allegedly involved are not required to incriminate themselves or anyone else who might have been driving the vehicle; tickets explain how those receiving them can view the photographic evidence and discuss it by telephone or in person with the agency issuing the ticket; tickets identify the company operating the camera and provide contact information for the agency issuing the ticket; and a sign be posted within 200 feet of every intersection with a red light camera.

simitian.jpg“This bill is designed to make sure that people’s due process rights are protected as they work their way through the system, and to make sure that if somebody gets a ticket that they shouldn’t have, they have a way out of the system that’s relatively quick and convenient,” Simitian said in a news release.

Drivers across the state have questioned the cameras’ accuracy, and courts have questioned the validity of evidence they produce. Simitian said he’s not against the cameras entirely, “they raise issues of accuracy, privacy and due process. I believe that traffic tickets should only be issued to improve public safety, not to raise revenue.”

Simitian had authored a similar bill last year born of his annual “There Oughta Be a Law” contest; San Jose resident Vera Gil proposed it after getting multiple tickets from red light cameras for a car in Southern California she does not own and has never driven.

“People who get tickets for someone else’s car need a way to straighten things out,” Gil said in Simitian’s news release. “In my case, the license plate was one letter different than mine. I understand how that mistake happens, but it took weeks and weeks to clear-up. There was no information on who to call. I think that the cameras are helpful, but a ticket can be a real thorn in the side of the person who receives it mistakenly.”


New bills on booze, child care, energy, bullies

Like the swallows to San Juan Capistrano, state lawmakers flocked back to Sacramento today, some to be sworn into their new terms, some to introduce bills, some perhaps just to keep their seats warm.

Among the Bay Area delegation’s legislative priorities: sangria, child care, party buses, public utilities, human trafficking, renewable energy and bullying (in no particular order).

State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco – who was announced today as the new chairman of the Senate Budget Committee – introduced a bill that would lift state law’s ban on sale of infused alcohol. Believe it or not, it’s illegal under existing law for a bar to mix up a big jar of sangria, or to infuse a big container of vodka or some other liquor, for later use and sale; such things can only be made to order. As a resurgence of the art of the cocktail has swept the state, many bar owners have ignored this rule – at their peril, it turned out, when the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control started handing out warnings and citations earlier this year. Leno estimates half of the Bay Area bars’s create and serve infusions, including limoncello, sangria, fruit flavored tequilas and many flavors of infused vodka, and his SB 32 is supported by the Golden Gate Restaurant Association.

State Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, was named Majority Leader – second in command, responsible for setting the Democratic agenda and the Senate’s floor operations – and introduced a bill to restore the $256 million for Stage 3 child care that Gov. Schwarzenegger line-item vetoed out of the state’s budget. The Stage 3 program provided child care services to more than 81,000 children and some 60,000 working families statewide; a court has put the cut on hold until Dec. 31, and the First 5 Commissions in many counties – including Alameda and Santa Clara – are footing the program’s bills until funding can be restored. “This money is vital for thousands of working parents, their children, and their caregivers who depend on these centers being open,” Corbett said in a news release.

On the Assembly side, Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, co-authored the Assembly version of the bill to restore the vetoed child-care funds, and also introduced his own bill to crack down on operators of “party buses” that allow underage drinking aboard their vehicles. Prompted by the death of a 19-year-old from Burlingame, Hill’s AB 45 would require bus drivers – just as limousine drivers already are required – to make underage passengers sign statements that their consumption of alcohol is illegal, and then end the ride if any underage passengers imbibe. Fines starting at $2,000 for a first offense could be imposed by the Public Utilities Commission against companies that don’t comply, and further violations could result in license suspensions or revocations; party bus operators also could be charged with a misdemeanor.

Hill also introduced a bill, inspired by the Sept. 9 natural gas blast that killed eight people and flattened 27 San Bruno homes, that would prevent utilities from using ratepayer money to pay penalties or fees assessed by the Public Utilities Commission; require utilities that own or operate gas facilities to annually report to the PUC any pipeline problems; require utilities to create public education programs on their emergency response plans; require gas pipeline owners or operators to prioritize pipelines near seismically active areas for increased safety oversight, and by 2020 to create programs to upgrade their facilities for state-of-the-art inspection methods; require the PUC to set minimum standards to install automatic and/or remote shutoff valves; and require the PUC to ensure utility owners actually use rate increases to pay for the projects they propose, with any diversions publicly explained.

Lots more, after the jump…
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