Holding a phone while driving becomes illegal in 2019 when Gov. Jay Inslee signs a distracted driving measure passed by the Legislature.
“I am just thrilled that we have been able to forge a step forward on distracted driving,” Inslee said. “Pain and suffering and tragedy caused by this inattentiveness is very hard to bear.”
Both chambers approved the measure on Wednesday. It would prohibit holding an electronic device — including phones, tablets and other electronic devices — while driving, including while in traffic or waiting for a traffic light to change.
However, the measure would allow “the minimal use of a finger” to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of a personal electronic device while driving.
For months, lawmakers have discussed ways to get people to put down their phones while they’re behind the wheel.
“Distracted driving is one of the greatest causes of motor vehicle crashes,” said Richland police Capt. Mike Cobb. “Some experts believe that distracted driving is as much a hazard as driving while under the influence.”
Distracted driving is one of the greatest causes of motor vehicle crashes.
Richland police Capt. Mike Cobb
Democratic Rep. Jessyn Farrell of Seattle, sponsor of the House bill, told the Associated Press they needed to come up with stronger penalties to enforce the law — which would replace the current texting or holding a phone to the ear while driving statute.
Farrell said the measure applies to drivers’ of all ages.
“This is the same for everyone, the idea is that we are all so into our phones that we need an equal application of the law,” she said.
Under the measure, the standard traffic fine of $136 would apply to a first offense, but would increase to about $235 for a second offense. The first distracted driving offense would also be reportable to insurance companies, which could raise rates like any other moving violation.
Some lawmakers disputed the penalty, suggesting it should only apply to second offenses.
“I don’t think our people should be penalized with a first offense,” said Republican Rep. Ed Orcutt of Kalama.
He opposed the bill during the House floor debate by saying some people do not drive dangerously while holding their cellphone.
“Somebody who is merely holding a cellphone in their hand is not necessarily distracted,” Orcutt said.
Farrell said the measure would go into effect in January 2019 to give the public and the state patrol some time to adjust and prepare for the change.
Don’t put your makeup on. Don’t be playing with your radio all the time. They passed a law and we are here to uphold the law.
Pasco police Sgt. Scott Warren
“Don’t put your makeup on. Don’t be playing with your radio all the time. They passed a law and we are here to uphold the law,” said Pasco police Sgt. Scott Warren.
“We’re not out to just write people tickets,” Warren added. “Education, training and monetary fines just give us a different way to teach people about distracted driving.”
Another section of the bill also says a person who engages in “any activity not related to the actual operation of a motor vehicle” is subject to pay an additional fine of $100. It only applies if an officer catches a driver being distracted while committing a standard traffic offense, such as running a stop sign because their coffee spilled or a pet jumped in their lap.
Farrell said the bill doesn’t prohibit drivers from doing other things like eating, putting on makeup or having a pet in the car while driving — but it would create an extra fine if the distraction causes the driver to drive dangerously.
“If you’re driving, stay focused on driving. We don’t want somebody hitting and killing someone,” Warren said.
If you’re driving, stay focused on driving. We don’t want somebody hitting and killing someone.
Pasco police Sgt. Scott Warren
Over a six-year period, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission reported 1,336 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the state. Of those, nearly 30 percent involved distraction.
“Accidents can happen in a blink of an eye,” Rivers said. “If you’re looking at your phone and not the road, then you’re making a choice to participate in a very risky behavior that impacts not only your life, but the lives of every other car around you.”
Exceptions to the bill would include using an electronic device to contact emergency services, to operate an emergency vehicle, to allow transit system dispatch services to communicate time-sensitive messages, and to allow any activities that are federally authorized for commercial motor vehicle drivers.
Operating an amateur radio station and two-way or citizens band radio services are also exceptions in the proposal.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states currently ban any hand-held cellphone use while driving a car and 46 states ban texting while driving. However, 37 states along with the District of Columbia, ban all cellphone use by beginner or teen drivers, including Washington.