A little-publicized change in the state law banning the use of cellphones and other mobile electronic devices while driving takes effect today, the first day of the new fiscal year.
Drivers receiving citations under the law are no longer required to make mandatory court appearances, Sgt. Robert Pauole of the Hawaii Police Department’s Traffic Services Section said Monday afternoon.
“The section before used to have a mandatory court appearance, the reason being the law was written that the fines would increase each time you had an additional offense,” Pauole said. “The court system got too congested with people coming to court for the violations. Now it’s become a traffic infraction and there’s no need to go to court. The downside to that is the violation fine is $297.”
Pauole added the fine is $307 if the driver is cited while in a school or construction zone.
The state law, which went into effect a year ago, superseded the previous county ordinance banning the use of mobile electronic devices by drivers in most circumstances. Previous fines under the state law for a first offense were at least $100 and not more than $200, and fines for subsequent offenses ranged between $300 and $500.
The state law exempts emergency responders, including police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and Civil Defense officials, plus licensed two-way radio operators.
The law makes it illegal to use cellphones, text messaging devices, paging devices, personal digital assistants, laptop computers, video games and digital cameras. Not included in the ban are audio equipment such radios or compact disc players or equipment installed in a motor vehicle for the purpose of providing navigation, emergency assistance to the operator of the motor vehicle, or video entertainment to the passengers in the rear seats of the motor vehicle.
Hands-free cellphone devices such as Bluetooth are also exempted, provided the driver is 18 or older. Drivers younger than 18 are restricted from using such devices while driving.
Pauole said the change in the law due to court overcrowding is a reflection of the pervasive nature of the offense.
“I think it’s a big problem,” he said. “I think the officers are just scratching the surface of it when they’re issuing citations. I’m an avid runner. When I run, I’d say every two out of 10 cars I see, there’s some kind of electronic device violation. I issue them on the road all the time.”
He said that especially troubling is drivers sending and receiving text messages, known by the slang term “driving while intexticated.”
“That’s the worst one, and unfortunately, bringing it up in the law has made it even more dangerous,” Pauole said. “Now, people are trying to hide it, so they’re dropping their phones even lower and looking down, so their eyes are completely off the roadway when they’re texting. Regardless, it needed to be done because it’s a dangerous act.”
Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune- herald.com.