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California motorists caught violating the state's rules on using cell phones behind the wheel could face bigger fines under legislation approved by the state Senate today.

Senate Bill 1310 would slap drivers caught texting or chatting without a hands-free device with a base fine of $30 for a first offense, up from the current fine of $20. That increase would bring the total fee faced by first-time offenders to about $199. Multiple offenses could carry a base fine of $60, which amounts to $319 in fees, and a one-point penalty on the driver's license. The additional revenues would be used to educate California drivers about the laws and the dangers of distracted driving.

The bill would also prohibit bicyclists from talking or texting on a cell phone.

Bill author Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, said the fine hike will improve compliance with the state's hands-free laws, leading to fewer collissions and fatalities. He said a recent study has shown such incidents have dropped by more than 20 percent since the state's rules on talking and texting while driving laws took effect.

The bill cleared the upper house by a vote of 24-9, winning the support of just two Republicans. Sen. Doug LaMalfa said he would prefer to see law enforcement target motorists driving recklessly in general instead of targeting those using cell phones.

"The fines are huge, the burden is high," the Richvale Republican said. "You talk to just regular people out there, most of them hate this ban." 

Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed last year legislation to increase base fines to $50 for a first offense and $100 for subsequent offenses.

"For people of ordinary means, current fines and penalty assessments should be sufficient deterrent," the Democratic governor wrote in a veto message.

The bill now heads to the Assembly for consideration.


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