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January 18, 2005 > New Traffic Laws for 2005

New Traffic Laws for 2005

by Linda Stone

Beginning Jan. 1, 2005, several new traffic laws went into effect. Below is a list of some of the more common laws and an abstract of each from the CHP and California State Assembly.

Headlamp Usage. (AB 1854, Simitian). This amendment to the vehicle code requires every motor vehicle, other than a motorcycle, be operated with headlamps lighted when weather conditions require windshield wipers to be in continuous use.

According to the author, the bill was borne out of his annual "It Oughta Be a Law Contest" where constituents are invited to submit ideas for legislation and laws. Two constituents proposed that drivers should be required to turn on a vehicle's headlights if visibility is reduced in poor driving weather. The author believes that the proposal for "wipers on, lights on" is a common sense measure, cost-free, and one that saves lives. The author notes that 28 other states have already recognized the safety aspects of the proposal by enacting similar laws.

Child Restraint Laws. (AB 1697 of 2003, Torlakson). This bill requires all children under six years of age or weighing less than 60 pounds to be properly restrained in the back seat of passenger vehicles. Exceptions include vehicles with no rear seat, rear seats that are rear or side-facing, and if all rear seats are occupied by children under the age of 12. The law also prohibits children from riding in the front seat of a vehicle with an active passenger airbag if the child is under the age of one or weighs less than 20 pounds or is riding in a rear-facing restraint system.

Current law requires all children under the age of six or weighing less than 60 pounds to be restrained in a child passenger restraint system. This bill takes that law one step further and requires that child passenger restraint systems are placed in the rear seat, unless certain conditions exist that hinder the ability to do so.

According to a 1999 study produced by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), children 12 years or younger, who ride in the back seat suffered one third fewer fatalities than those in the front seat. Such studies compelled the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to recommend placing all non-teenaged children in the rear seat. NHTSA concedes, however, that if the only option is to seat the child in the front, several steps should be taken to avoid injuries from impact, particularly the deployment of an air bag. Those steps include restraining the child in a safety seat (already required for certain children) and making sure the seat is pushed all the way back to maximize the distance between the child and the air bag. While NHTSA states that simply scooting the seat back could prevent injury, exactly how far back to be considered safe is subjective and depends largely on the vehicle type and the power of the bag. To avoid a possible misjudgment, NHTSA believes placing children in the rear seat should be the standard.

Motorized Scooters. (AB 1878, Chan). This new law requires users of motorized scooters to possess a valid Class C driver's license or instruction permit. Previously no license was required. The law is also amended to prohibit operating a scooter on a highway or off highway unless it has a properly maintained muffler in constant operation. It also prohibits sale of a scooter the produces more than 80 decibels at a distance of 50 feet.

The author notes that unlicensed operators and children, who are not familiar with basic traffic laws and the particular statutes that apply to motor scooters, put themselves and the community at risk of serious injury and death. She cites a 200% increase in reported emergency room visits attributable to scooter accidents between 1999 and 2000. Thirty nine percent of the 4,390 scooter-related hospital visits in 2000 were by children under the age of 15. Finally, she documents five deaths of motor scooter riders in California, with one victim being as young as six years old. She and this bill's numerous supporters from law enforcement also complain that due to motor scooters being modified to boost performance and being equipped with illegal after-market mufflers, their noise levels have increased. This bill is intended to address the safety problems associated with scooter use by children as well as the noise pollution caused by scooter operations.

It should be noted that while this bill will clearly tighten the regulation of motor scooter operation, children under the age of 16 are already prohibited under existing law from driving these devices. So, to some extent, one of the problems targeted by the bill could be addressed by more rigorous enforcement of existing law. In response, the author points out that many scooter owners are unaware of the age limit and are not typically informed of it by the scooter dealers.

Traffic Signal Devices. (AB 340, Frommer). This prohibits unauthorized purchase, possession, manufacture, installation, sale or distribution of a MIRT (Mobile Infrared Transmitter) or other devices capable of sending a signal that interrupts or changes the sequence patterns of an official traffic control signal. Authorized emergency vehicles and public transit vehicles are excepted.

In order to avoid intersection confusion and help expedite emergency response, MIRTs were developed so that police, fire, and other emergency response vehicles could utilize them to change traffic signals when appropriate. Essentially, MIRTs send a signal to a traffic signal allowing them to change the light in favor of the vehicle containing the device.

While the original intent of MIRTs was to assist emergency vehicles, the author notes this device can be very tempting to the average driver who may wish to use it to alleviate his or her own traffic problems or inconveniences. He states that recently, "various models have been made available for as little as $110 on eBay and other Internet sites" and contends that "there is little or no verification that the MIRT would be going into a police car, fire truck, or ambulance."

Speed Violations. (AB 2237, Parra). This new law provides for a fine of up to $750 for a second conviction within three years for driving in excess of 100 mph. The fine increases up to $1,000 per conviction for subsequent offenses committed within five years of the first two.

The author reports that speeding-related crashes have been estimated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Institute to cost the nation's economy more than $40 billion per year. Excessive speed reduces a driver's ability to steer around curves or to avoid unanticipated obstacles in the roadway and it increases the distance a vehicle travels while the driver reacts to a dangerous situation. These negative factors are clearly amplified when speeds exceed 100 mph. California Highway Patrol reports cited by the author indicate that 100-mph violations increased by almost 20% between 2001 and 2003.

In an attempt to reduce this practice, the author seeks to make 100-mph violations more costly to the perpetrators. "A speed violation in excess of 100 mph is unacceptable for speeders and those who share the road with them. Increased attention needs to be given to excessive speeding violations that may lead to crashes. This bill is a bill that ultimately may reduce the occurrence of fatalities and injuries resulting from unsafe driving speeds."

Speed Contests. (SB 1541, Margett). Punishment for those who engage in illegal speed contests such as street racing increases to now include mandatory performance of 40 hours of community service. Preexisting penalties include 24-hours minimum jail time and suspension of driver's license for from 90 days to six months.

According to the author's office, reading the headlines throughout California, it is evident street racing is a serious problem plaguing every community. The State Department of the California Highway patrol reports that between 2000 and 2002, there were 313 total racing involved collisions, resulting in 26 deaths and 290 injured victims. While there are currently strong penalties against street racers, street racing continues to take not only the lives of racers but of innocent bystanders.

Wireless Telephones. (AB 2785, Nakano). This new addition to the California Vehicle
Code prohibits the driver of a school bus or transit vehicle from using a wireless telephone while driving. Exemptions are for work related use or emergency purposes.

The author's office contends that the use of a cellular telephone should be restricted while operating a school bus or transit vehicle because of the number of distractions that particularly confront these drivers and the need for these operators to concentrate their attention on the safe operation of their vehicles in light of the number and type of passengers that they transport.

The problem of driver inattention is significant and pervasive and it endangers the safety of the inattentive driver and potentially other motorists. For example, the National Highway Safety Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that driver inattention or distraction is responsible for 25-30 percent of officially-reported traffic collisions in the United States.

Lighting Equipment. (SB 1236, Murray). The new law permits non-distracting night vision enhancement devices which display images allowing a driver to see objects ahead better during darkness.

According to the author's office, safe driving requires that drivers be able to properly view the roadway ahead and see approaching traffic, potential hazards, road markings, pedestrians, bicyclists, and other objects and conditions as quickly as possible. Lower light levels during darkness reduce driving visibility and may preclude the driver from avoiding unsafe situations on the road.

This bill authorizes the use of "night vision" equipment in vehicles in order to enhance roadway visibility during darkness. The bill also requires that any night vision equipment must not compromise the oncoming driver's visibility and that the light emitted from the device does not interfere with the operation of traffic control lights.

In addition, this bill prohibits these devices from being physically or optically located within the housing of headlamps. Current law does not permit the sale or installation of such devices in vehicles and also prohibits the emission of a red light from the front of a vehicle.

This bill's sponsors, Ford Motor Company and LEAR Corporation, have developed a "laser active night vision system," which has been trademarked as "Clearview" that uses infrared light illumination devices to produce sharper and deeper views and images of the road ahead to supplement driving visibility. These enhanced systems allow a driver to see beyond the range of a vehicle's low beam headlights without affecting oncoming drivers or pedestrians. These devices would operate only in concert with vehicle headlamps through an interlock mechanism. The bill's prohibition on physically or optically combining these systems with the housing of headlamps may preclude future technologies, even if the systems are proven not to alter official traffic control lights.

Some manufacturers currently offer thermal systems, which generate images based on temperatures. The sponsors of this bill contend that the laser systems provide a greater contrast of objects than thermal systems and eliminate the blinding effects of oncoming vehicle headlights and show lane markings and roadside reflectors. LEAR is aggressively marketing the product to other automotive manufacturers. Ford intends to offer this option on select Volvo and Lincoln models, beginning with the 2006 model year.

HOV Lanes. (AB 2628, Pavley). PENDING FEDERAL AUTHORIZATION, specified single occupancy hybrid motor vehicles may use HOV lanes.

An HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lane is commonly referred to as a "carpool" or "diamond" lane. The author has introduced this bill as a means of creating an incentive for the purchase of hybrid vehicles. Hybrids are primarily propelled by conventional gasoline engines, but they also convert energy generated during coasting and braking into electricity, which is stored in a battery until needed by the vehicle's electric motor. The electric motor assists the engine when accelerating or hill climbing and in low-speed driving conditions where internal combustion engines are least efficient. The gasoline engine operates on its own under cruising conditions. Hybrids offer significant fuel savings over conventional gasoline engines and, consequently, also typically emit far less toxic air contaminants and so-called greenhouse gases. The theoretical basis for this bill is that by affording hybrid owners access to HOV lanes, which allow for far faster travel on congested freeways during peak commute times, car buyers will be more inclined to purchase a hybrid as opposed to a conventional (and presumably less fuel efficient) vehicle.

According to the author, hybrids "use half the gasoline that conventional cars do, produce far fewer harmful emissions, and are increasing in popularity. However, (hybrid) sales are still marginal enough for car manufacturers to claim that they can't afford to make them. This proposal will give consumers a strong incentive to purchase the least polluting and most fuel-efficient (hybrids), and as a result, increase the demand for the cleanest hybrid technology." The ARB (California Air Resources Board) estimates that there will be approximately 110,000 AT PZEV (Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emission Vehicle) hybrid electric vehicles available in the state through the 2007 model year. Of these vehicles, only 55,000 are expected to meet this bill's 45-mpg standard.

Hybrid vehicles, which have become a popular means by which vehicle manufacturers may meet their zero emission vehicle obligations, do not meet the clean fuel standard established by AB 71; consequently their owners and advocates are dismayed that they are not allowed into HOV lanes. Since allowing large numbers of hybrids into HOV lanes would reduce the effectiveness of the lanes by compromising their ability to offer a quicker commute than adjacent mixed-flow lanes, the bill allows Caltrans to suspend HOV lane privileges for hybrids on any particular lane that reaches a specified level of congestion.

Additionally, federal law (Title 23 U.S.C. 102 (a)(2)) specifies that vehicles with fewer than two occupants may operate in HOV lanes only if "the vehicle is properly labeled and certified as an Inherently Low Emission Vehicle (ILEV)." According to a 2001 memorandum issued by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), "none of the hybrid vehicles have qualified as ILEVs because their engines have fuel vapor emissions. Hybrid vehicles have not been certified by the EPA as meeting the emissions requirements that have been established for vehicles to be classified as an ILEV. As a result, hybrid vehicles are not allowed to use HOV lanes." This bill acknowledges that prohibition by conditioning its implementation on the state receiving a federal waiver. Supporters also note that the Bush Administration's federal transportation reauthorization proposal includes permission for HOV lane use by vehicles achieving 45 mpg or better.

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