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Texting while driving: everything you need to know about the new law

December 30, 2008 | 12:11 pm

Don't Text While Driving sign

On New Year's Day, it will become illegal to text message while driving in California. You probably have a lot of questions about what precisely that means: Can you still use your BlackBerry to get directions while driving? What about checking Major League Baseball scores? Can you text while stuck in horrible traffic on the I-5?

The very patient Jaime Coffee, an information officer with the California Highway Patrol, has responded to our Twenty-plus Questions concerning just about every possible way the new law may be put to the test. Turns out you can't browse the Web while driving or text while sitting at a red light. But checking Major League Baseball scores or texting while riding a bicycle seem to be OK. Here's an edited transcript of our e-mail conversation with Coffee.

Q: Is it illegal to send an e-mail from your mobile device while driving?
A: Yes. Please refer to VC 23123.5 (b) (PDF download). As used in this section "write, send, or read a text-based communication" means using an electronic wireless communications device to manually communicate with any person using a text-based communication, including, but not limited to, communications referred to as a text message, instant message or electronic mail.

Q: Is it illegal to browse the Web while driving?
A: Yes. Refer to VC 27602 (a). A person may not drive a motor vehicle if a television receiver, a video monitor or a television or video screen, or any other similar means of visually displaying a television broadcast or video signal that produces entertainment or business applications, is operating and is located in the motor vehicle at any point forward of the back of the driver's seat, or is operating and visible to the driver while driving the motor vehicle.

Texting_while_driving_2 Q: Is it illegal to type directions into a digital map or GPS program on your phone while driving? 
A: No. The law does not say you can't type directions into a map or GPS program on your phone. 

Q: If you are texting a company or website, such as, as opposed to a person, is it still illegal to text while driving?
A: Technically speaking ... if the text-based communication is not going to another "person" you're not in violation. The new law addresses two-way communication. However, we don't encourage or condone any activity that could place you in jeopardy or harm's way. If sending this message causes the driver to become distracted, and affects the safe operation of the vehicle, an officer can pull the driver over and cite for unsafe operation of a motor vehicle, etc.

Q: If you are stopped at a red light, can you text while sitting at the red light?
A: No, it's against the law. If you are stopped at a light or a stop sign, you are still in control of that vehicle and need to be able to react.

Q: If you are sitting in a traffic jam and your car is not moving, is it illegal to text while driving?
A: Yes, it is still illegal. Again, you are still in control of the vehicle and should focus 100% of your attention to its safe operation.

More questions and answers, including whether it's legal to text while parked, after the jump.

Q: If you have parked your car in a parking space, but the car is still running, are you allowed to text while driving?
A: Since you are legally parked, you can send your text.

Traffic jamQ: What about if the car is off? 
A: If the engine is off, you are no longer operating the vehicle. Hopefully you have pulled over and parked in a safe location.

Q: If you have pulled over to the side of the road but are not in a parking space, and the car is still running, is it illegal to text while driving?
A: Technically, if you were pull over to the side of the road you're not driving. As long as the vehicle is stopped in an area that is not prohibited. We recommend that you pick a safe place to stop -- for example, a parking lot -- and remember to never stop on the freeway.

Q: Is it illegal to read directions from your map or GPS program on your phone while driving?
A: No. However, we do not recommend that you do this.

Q: Is it illegal to type directions into a GPS device that is separate from a phone while driving?
A: No. Again, however, we do not encourage or recommend that you do this.

Q: Is it illegal to read texts that you receive while driving? 
A: Yes. Texting (composing, sending or reading) while operating a vehicle on public roadways is illegal.

Q: Is it illegal to read e-mails that you receive while driving?
A: Yes.

Q: Is it illegal to type in a phone number that you then call with your hands-free device?
A: No. You can still dial, and the new law doesn't prohibit you from dialing. However, as soon as you hit send, you must be hands-free. If you've got voice-activated dialing, it's even better.

Q: Is it illegal to text while driving a motorcycle or a bicycle?
A: A motorcycle has a motor, so it would be illegal to text while driving a motorcycle. A bike doesn't have a motor, therefore it is not illegal. But if you're riding a bicycle, you should be paying attention to your surroundings.

Q: If you have a service that allows you to recite text messages that are typed onto the phone by voice recognition software, is that illegal to use?
A: If you are using a hands-free device, that is using voice-recognition software ... technically you're hands-free, so you'd be OK.

Q: What if you have already composed the text messages but you just need to press send? 
A: Yes, it is still illegal to "send" the text regardless of when it was composed. So send it before you head out in your vehicle.

Q: Is it illegal to type a text message into a touch-screen device such as an iPhone?
A: Yes. Texting (composing, sending or reading) while operating a vehicle on public roadways is illegal, no matter what type of device you're using.

Q: Does the law pertain to devices with a QWERTY keyboard, rather than just a number screen? 
A: Yes. It applies to any electronic wireless communications device used to write, send or read a text-based communication. It's the distraction [of texting] the law is attempting to eliminate while you're driving.

Q: What are the penalties for texting while driving? 
A: They are similar to the cellphone law that went into effect July 1, 2008. The base fine for a first violation is $20; subsequent violations are $50. However, the total cost of the citation will be significantly higher than the base fine with the addition of local court costs and program fees. The exact penalty varies from county to county.

Q: If you get in an accident while texting while driving, are the penalties harsher?
A: The penalty for violating that law remains the same. However, if your texting contributed to the collision, the officer could charge you with a host of other violations including reckless driving, unsafe speed for conditions, etc. If the collision should involve bodily injury or great bodily injury, you could also be charged with violation of VC 21070, which includes an additional base fine of $70-$95 (plus penalties and assessments).

Still want to know more? A San Diego assistant district attorney has composed a 10-page outline of the law (PDF download) and what it means.

-- Alana Semuels

Top photo credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images.

Middle photo credit: Senor Codo via Flickr.

Bottom photo credit: Respres via Flickr.