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ARRL Gauging Impact of Revised California Distracted Driving Law


California has upped its game in cracking down on distracted driving, and radio amateurs there are concerned that a recent revision to the state’s Motor Vehicle Code could affect Amateur Radio mobile operation. The old law, which included an Amateur Radio exemption, already prohibited motorists from using electronic wireless communication devices to write, send, or read a text-based communication while in motion, unless the device was configured for voice-operated and hands-free operation. The revised law does not exempt Amateur Radio.

Assembly Bill 1785, signed into law on September 26 by Gov Jerry Brown, prohibits a motorist from driving “while holding and operating” a hand-held wireless telephone or a wireless electronic communication device, as defined by the code. But it authorizes a driver to operate such devices mounted on a vehicle’s windshield like a GPS or on the dashboard or center console “in a manner that does not hinder the driver’s view of the road,” if the driver can activate or deactivate a feature or function “with the motion of a single swipe or tap of the finger.”

The language defining devices covered by the law does not accurately specify what activity is prohibited, leaving its application subject to misinterpretation by individual law enforcement officers, but it does not specifically proscribe use of mobile Amateur Radio equipment for voice communication. The list of covered devices includes, but is not limited to, “a broadband personal communication device, a specialized mobile radio device, a handheld device or laptop computer with mobile data access, a pager, or a two-way messaging device.” A first offense would incur a $20 base fine and $50 for subsequent offenses.

Initial wording of the legislation was not considered to be a threat to Amateur Radio operation, but the measure’s language changed substantially as it worked its way through the California General Assembly.

ARRL General Counsel Chris Imlay, W3KD, said there are two principal ways to protect Amateur Radio in this type of legislation. “One is by sufficiently narrowly defining prohibited activity so as to exclude Amateur Radio,” he said. “The other is to create specific exemptions where the definitions are confusing. This new statute is an example of bad legislative draftsmanship. It creates a motor vehicle law with citations issued for certain activity that includes the words ‘but is not limited to’ in the language defining the violation.”

In addition to scrutinizing the language of the revision, ARRL will be consulting with Field Organization officials in California to determine its next steps.



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