A bill that would increase the cost of using a handheld cellphone or texting while driving to about $309 passed the state Senate on Monday and is headed to the Assembly.
"Good, good," motorist Anna Fields of Sunnyvale said. "Anything to make these drivers on their phones understand the risks they are taking and the danger they pose to me and everyone else is badly needed."
SB 28 by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, passed by a 24-12 vote. It would make a second offense a moving violation and raise the base fine from $20 to $50 per violation. With various fees, a first offense would cost $309, up from the current $208. A repeat offender could be fined $100, or $528 with fees.
Simitian's bill also would make it illegal to talk on a handheld cellphone while riding a bicycle, although the fine for that offense would be significantly lower -- $20 for a first offense and $50 thereafter, with no added fees. And a bicyclist would not receive a point on their driver's license.
Simitian expects that stiffer penalties will create a more significant deterrent.
"Compliance to date has been good," he said, "but there's room for improvement. I think this will make a good law even better."
Republicans objected, saying the bill goes too far and is disliked by drivers. A similar measure died last year in an Assembly committee.
"People out there, they hate this bill. It makes them angry that you can't just casually use a cell phone in appropriate situations in an automobile," said Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Willows. He said the bill is an example of the state's slide toward "nanny government."
The threat of heftier fines comes in the midst of the most intensive statewide crackdown since the law went into effect in 2008. In a two-day period in early April, Highway Patrol officers in the Bay Area issued more tickets than they usually write across the entire state -- 979 tickets for distracted driving in the nine Bay Area counties, plus Santa Cruz and San Benito counties. In 2010, the CHP issued tickets at a rate of 798 every two days statewide.
Despite the police efforts, several motorists say, drivers keep violating the law, and many say it frightens them.
"Here is one I hope to never see again," motorist George Auld said about what he witnessed on a recent drive on Interstate 280 near Los Altos. He was going 68 mph when he was passed on the right by a Toyota van going at least 10 mph faster.
"Looking over," Auld continued, "I could see a man hunched over the steering wheel steering with his elbows on each side of the wheel and texting with his hands on his phone held in front of the wheel."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.