California Highway Patrol officials are reminding the public of new road safety bills passed by the state Legislature that have taken effect or are set to become effective after New Year's, including two measures that will directly affect driving behavior. 

The laws range from regulating a new type of evacuation siren to adding penalties for distracted driving and protections for good Samaritans, according to Fran Clader, director of communications for the CHP. 

'Hi-lo' evacuation siren

SB 909 went into effect on Sept. 29 and allows emergency vehicles to use a "hi-lo" warning sound that will be used to notify the public of an immediate need to evacuate an area in an emergency.

The new alarm goes back and forth between a high and a low pitch and sounds distinct from the typical siren blared from emergency vehicles. 

Several police agencies across the state already have implemented the new alarm, including the Ventura County Sheriff's Office. 

The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office hasn't adopted the technology yet because it requires additional equipment, but it won't replace the standard siren heard with emergency vehicles, according to spokeswoman Raquel Zick, who added the new sound is exclusively used to evacuate. 

"When you hear the hi-lo, it's time to go, which means you must evacuate immediately," said Santa Rosa Police Chief Rainer Navarro in a YouTube video.  

Regulations standardizing the warning sound statewide are currently under development by the CHP, according to Clader, who added that a permit is required to use the new alarm until regulations are adopted.

'Move over, slow down'

AB 2285 amends California’s “move over, slow down” law, expanding the requirement that drivers slow down and/or move to another lane as they approach emergency vehicles that are displaying lights and are parked alongside the highway. 

The new rule applies to Caltrans vehicles and tow trucks — in addition to law enforcement, fire personnel, ambulances and other authorized emergency vehicles — and was enacted to prevent collisions with moving vehicles and those working on the highway, according to Caltrans District 5 spokesman Jim Shivers.

"This new legislation basically expands the 'move over' law from state highways onto local roads and streets that are overseen by the local county or city," he added. 

There is no speed threshold for drivers to slow down, only that they slow down "below the maximum speed limit for optimum [driving] conditions," according to San Luis Obispo CHP Officer Mike Poelking.

The penalty for breaking this law is a $50 fine. 

Unattended children

AB 2717 exempts a person from civil or criminal liability for trespassing or damaging a vehicle when rescuing a child 6 years old or younger who is in immediate danger from heat, cold, lack of ventilation or other dangerous circumstances.

The bill was authored by Monterey Park Assemblyman Ed Chau, who cited the deaths of six children in California who died after they were left in hot cars in 2018 and 2019. 

"That's six children too many," Chau said. "Those are innocent and precious lives that could have been saved and that is the reason why I introduced this legislation."

Texting and driving

AB 47, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom Oct. 8, will add a point to the record of a driver who violates the state’s hands-free law for a second time within 36 months or receives a prior conviction for the same offense.

Distracted driving penalties for a first offense include base fines of $20 and $50 for each subsequent offense, although they can be as much as $162 with administrative and court fees tacked on. 

"Under current law, the penalty for driving while using a cellphone amounts to a small fine (oftentimes less than a parking ticket), which cannot be expected to change driver behavior," said Anaheim Assemblyman Tom Daly, who introduced the bill. 

AB 47 goes into effect starting July 1, according to Clader.

Citations are issued based on whether the driver is suspected of holding the phone up to their ear or texting and driving, according to Buellton CHP Officer Keith Rogers. 

This article was clarified to reflect that Caltrans was also included in the original "move over" law. 

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