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Employment Law Blog

Friday, September 26, 2008

California Bans “Texting” Behind the Wheel; California Employers Should Update Personnel Policies

California has banned text messaging while driving, and employers need to respond promptly by updating policies.

SB 28, signed by Governor Schwarzenegger on September 24, 2008, amends the California Vehicle Code to state: “A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while using an electronic wireless communications device to write, send, or read a text-based communication.”

As the governor sorted through 800 bills on his desk, he said he was “happy” to sign this one. “Banning electronic text messaging while driving will keep drivers’ hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, making our roadways a safer place for all Californians.”

What about fumbling with your PDA’s phone directory to dial out a call? That doesn’t count as texting under the new law: “For purposes of this section, a person shall not be deemed to be writing, reading, or sending a text-based communication if the person reads, selects, or enters a telephone number or name in an electronic wireless communications device for the purpose of making or receiving a telephone call.”

The penalty for violating the law is $20 for the first violation and $50 for subsequent violations. No violation points will be given as a result of the offense.

The new law closes a loophole left by Senate Bill 1613. Effective July 1, 2008, that new law provides that it is illegal to drive a motor vehicle while using a wireless telephone, unless a hands-free device for the cell phone is used. But the law did not expressly ban texting. (Separate legislation has already banned drivers under age 18 from using cell phones or any texting device while driving.)

California joins Alaska, Minnesota, New Jersey, Louisiana, Washington and the District of Columbia, where legislators have also recently enacted laws that ban sending text messages while driving. At least a dozen other states are currently considering such a ban.

Texting while driving is a frighteningly common occurrence, especially among younger drivers. According to a survey conducted by Findlaw.com, 47 percent of drivers between the ages of 18 and 24, and more than a quarter (27 percent) of drivers 25 to 34, admit to texting while behind the wheel. Seventeen percent of adults surveyed say they have texted while driving.

Studies suggest that texting while driving is more dangerous than driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The California Highway Patrol reports that statewide last year, 1,091 crashes with 447 injuries were blamed on drivers using cell phones. In accident cases, lawyers may argue that an employer is liable where an off-duty employee makes or answers a business-related call, or sends a business text message while driving.

Have you updated your employee handbooks? In order to minimize liability issues arising from employees using cell phones, PDAs, or other electronic communication devices on the road while in the course and scope of employment or while taking work-related calls, employers should implement a policy that requires all employees to refrain from texting and to use “hands free” devices while driving on company business or when making business calls on the road. Better yet, employees could be prohibited from using cell phones or PDAs while driving.

Contact me for a complimentary sample policy.

Find the text of the new law: California Texting Ban

Submitted by:
Christopher W. Olmsted, Esq.
Barker, Olmsted & Barnier, APLC