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The state Senate voted today -- by a bare minimum of 21 votes -- to increase penalties imposed on California drivers who break laws restricting cell phone use while driving.

"The numbers show that compliance is good and that California's hands-free law is working. We can do better though, and save even more lives," said Sen. Joe Simitian, a Democrat of Palo Alto, after his Senate Bill 1475 was approved.

Simitian's bill increases first-time base fines to $50 from the current $20 for breaking laws on the books that Simitian sponsored in the past. Subsequent violations would be punished with $100 fines rather than the current $50 fine.

Because counties add on fees, penalties for these violations are often two or three times higher than base fees imposed by state law.

Simitian's existing laws ban texting while driving and prohibit talking on a phone while holding it rather than using an earpiece. Drivers under 18 are not allowed to use cells or wireless devices at all while they are driving.

SB 1475 would also add a new fine: Bicyclists caught clutching phones while riding and talking or texting would face a $20 first-time fine but no extra fees tacked on by counties.

Simitian's measure also calls for a point to be placed against a driver's driving record with each cell violation. That could lead to revocation of a driver's license and higher insurance rates.

Sixteen senators voted against the measure. Sen. Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, cast a decisive 21st vote approving Simitian's bill. She has been out with an illness for weeks and returned to the floor Thursday afternoon and voted on some measures.

Senate Bill 1475 must also go to the Assembly for a vote.


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