RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Just after midnight, Californians woke up to a new reality.
(Soundbite of public service announcement)
Unidentified Man: Now in California, driving while holding cell phone is against the law.
MONTAGNE: The state with the most cars and the most highways in the nation is finally going hands free. The cell phone industry fought it tooth-and-nail, and California lawmakers spent six years trying to pass the new restriction. Now state police say they'll aggressively enforce the new law. Here's NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: The warnings have been coming for months. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger held a press conference a few weeks ago to remind Californians that their driving laws were going to change soon.
Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): We now that cell phones are the number one cause of distracted driving accidents. And according to some estimates getting drivers' hands off the cell phones and onto the steering wheel will save almost 300 lives a year in California.
BATES: A lot of people approve. In downtown Culver City, Linda Albrecht(ph) tells me why she does.
Ms. LINDA ALBRECHT: I believe you should not drive and talk at the same time. When my children call me, I say I hope you aren't driving. Get off the phone.
BATES: Yesterday, Steve Thomas was still holding onto his cell.
Mr. STEVE THOMAS: I will today probably, but probably not tomorrow.
BATES: Thomas has no plans to go hands free. He says he'll put down his phone and enjoy the silence.
Mr. THOMAS: It'll be kind of nice, I think.
BATES: There have been television PSA's like the one you just heard, online warnings and big signs on the highways telling drivers the new law starts immediately in July.
(Soundbite of traffic)
BATES: Standing near his motorcycle on the patio of the California Highway Patrol office in Culver City, Sergeant Rhett Price says as far as he's concerned, the sooner the law goes into effect the better.
Sergeant RHETT PRICE (California Highway Patrol): A day hasn't gone by that I don't see somebody using their cell phone, talking on the phone with one hand, changing lanes without properly looking over their shoulder or checking to the left or to the right and almost causing a collision. In fact, I've had it happen several times with me.
BATES: California's cell held threat is being eliminated, but there are plenty other things that are still legal. For now, you can still drive and dial, or even send a text message. As for other possible distractions, there are no laws prohibiting makeup application, shaving or negotiating a chili burger while driving, which doesn't mean you can't be cited. California's safe speed law is an amazingly flexible tool that allows officers to cite people whose behind-the-wheel multitasking makes them a danger to themselves and others.
Sergeant Rhett Price.
Sgt. PRICE: There are just some things that people have to understand they shouldn't be doing while they're driving. We can argue in court why it was unsafe for somebody to be texting or putting on their mascara or eating a sloppy burger at the time that they were driving their vehicle.
BATES: For now, the public focus is on hands-free phoning.
As the deadline approached, people rushed to comply with the law.
Mr. GREG CARTER (General Manager, Costco): We've been selling tons of these.
BATES: Greg Carter is general manager of Costco in Hawthorne, California. The new law is providentially posted here above a 6-foot-high display of hands-free headsets. Carter says this display is considerably smaller now than it was even a few weeks ago.
Mr. CARTER: Early on, there was some confusion that the law was going to start in January, so we did see a spike in sales in late December and early January, but nothing like what we've seen over the past four weeks.
BATES: The kits Costco carries cost from $40 to $60. That one-time expense may spare drivers the price of a ticket. The first time citation is $20. But with court costs, that could go up to $76. The next time, it could be as much as $192, and it gets increasingly expensive after that.
One group who won't be rushing to buy hands-free kits are drivers under 18. The new law forbids them from driving and talking - period. During his press conference Governor Schwarzenegger urged parents to be strict and says he's already laid down the law to his teenage daughters.
Gov. SCHWARZENEGGER: I told them that if I catch them driving with, you know, cell phones in their hands or making any calls, that the car will be gone and the cell phones will be gone.
BATES: Many auto safety experts would applaud that, since some research argues it's not holding the phone but talking on it that's the biggest danger to drivers of all ages.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
(Soundbite of song, "SMS")
BARCODE BROTHERS (Pop Group): (Singing) What can I do? I feel so blue. I've gotta get this message to you. I'm sending you an SMS. I'm sending you an S-S-MS. I'm feeling that it would be the best to send you an S-S-M.
MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.