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Amateurs in California and in several Arizona communities are facing recently enacted or impending bans on handheld electronic devices while driving. Here’s what we currently know about these laws.

In California, Assembly Bill 1785 took effect on January 1 of this year. Now included in Section 23123.5 of the Vehicle Code, this law provides that “a person shall not drive a motor vehicle while holding and operating a handheld wireless telephone or an electronic wireless communications device unless the wireless telephone or electronic wireless communications device is specifically designed and configured to allow voice-operated and hands-free operation, and it is used in that manner while driving . . . For the purposes of this section, “electronic wireless communications device” 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.”

Whether intentionally or unintentionally vague, interpretations of this language have ranged  from applying to all mobile communications (a traffic court commissioner speaking to a radio club) to excluding mobile radios (a CHP spokesperson in Orange County). One of our ARRL Volunteer Counsel attorneys spoke with a staff member of the Assembly Transportation Committee, which introduced the bill. The staffer told him that the law was intended to apply to smartphones and similar broadband devices, not to Amateur Radio or other radio communication services. Another Volunteer Counsel attorney is attempting to get a clarifying statement to that effect entered into the official record.

Meanwhile, CHP in Sacramento has provided guidance to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office that wired microphones permissible but handheld radios are not. Until the law is amended or clarified, it might be prudent for California Hams to avoid wielding a handheld while driving.

In December, the Town of Oro Valley (in Pima County), Arizona adopted a “hands-free” ordinance that states, "No person shall, except as otherwise provided in this ordinance, use a mobile telephone or portable electronic device while operating a motor vehicle upon a street or highway, unless that device is specifically designed or configured to allow hands-free listening and talking and used in that manner while operating a motor vehicle." The ordinance defines "hands free" as the "use of a mobile telephone or portable electronic device without the use of either hand by employing an internal feature of, or an attachment to, the device." Like the new California law, this one was ostensibly targeting smartphones and the like, but its lack of clear definitions or specific exclusions has Amateurs concerned. The town has provided for a warning-only period of a few months during which mobile radio operators can make their case if stopped. (Source:Oro Valley Web site)

A similar bill was passed earlier in 2016 in the City of San Luis (in Yuma County) but has not led to any enforcement cases to date.

On January 10, the Tucson City Council approved in concept a law similar to Oro Valley’s, and the final language is expected any time now. The stated purpose was to enable better enforcement of the city’s four-year- old ban on texting while driving, and it appears that the implementation will be as a secondary offense, one for which you can be cited only of you are already being stopped for another offense such as speeding. (Source: Tucson News Now.)

Tucson Amateurs are contacting their council members to request inclusion of appropriate exemption or exclusion language.

It is worth noting that an overly broad mobile-communications ordinance enacted in Coconino County, Arizona in 2014 was amended after pressure from both Amateurs and commercial trucking interests, according to Section Manager Robert Spencer KE8DM.

In Dave Sumner’s editorial devoted to this subject in February 2012 QST, he noted that “Safety must be our number one concern. Guiding a motor vehicle is an awesome responsibility. Radio amateurs have been operating mobile for decades without being perceived as a threat to public safety, but if there is ever any doubt in your mind about your ability to discharge that responsibility you should either pull off the road (if it is safe to do so) or turn off the radio.” I encourage you to read the full editorial.

ARRL Southwestern Division
Director: Richard J Norton, N6AA
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