It only takes a second to check a text or push “answer” on a call. Anything could happen on the road in that same instant.
“It doesn’t take much for you to lose control of your vehicle,” said Pasco police Sgt. Scott Warren.
In Washington, it’s illegal to send, read or write a text message while driving. Cellphone conversations without a headset or hands-free device are also forbidden.
Pasco police have issued 134 citations for phone calls and three for texts this year, Warren said.
Warren and other Tri-City officers watch out for drivers who may, for whatever reason, be distracted.
They target phones since it’s more common these days, but there are other distractions for drivers — putting on makeup or eating a hamburger, for example.
Richland police Capt. Mike Cobb has even seen someone steering a car with their knees — while eating a bowl of cereal. But that’s not illegal.
“We focus on the electronic devices because the likelihood of use is so high,” Cobb said.
The hard part is getting people to stop looking at their phone or surfing the web while driving. None of the state laws forbids looking at photos or surfing the web while driving.
“You have to show how it caused a significant hazard to people around them,” Cobb said.
Like Pasco, Richland’s numbers appear small — Richland police issued about 27 citations for texting and more than 100 for phone calls in 2016, Cobb said.
Kennewick police also have trouble quantifying the problem, because some of their citations are also for second-degree negligent driving, Sgt. Ken Lattin said.
“Their eyes are off the roadway,” Lattin said. “They’re paying attention to something else besides their driving.”
‘I wasn’t paying attention’
The 2007 driving and texting laws talked about older-style flip phones of the early and mid-2000s, said Shelly Baldwin, legislative and media relations manager at the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.
“It doesn’t define ‘texting’ as all of the myriad of things we do on our smartphones,” she said.
Current laws require some serious updates regarding electronics use while driving, police said.
“The law really needs to catch up with technology,” Lattin said. “When the law was originated, all people could do on their phone was talk or text.”
The same problem comes up in the Tri-Cities, said Chris Thorson, Washington State Patrol trooper.
“(Drivers) will not admit to why they drove into the back of someone at 50 miles an hour,” Thorson said. “They’ll just say ‘I wasn’t paying attention.’”
Out of 331 Tri-City drivers caught on the phone by the state patrol during the first six months of 2016, 217 got a ticket, 113 were given verbal warnings and one handed a written warning, Thorson said. Out of 27 caught texting, 18 resulted in a ticket and nine were verbal warnings.
This isn’t counting cases where a trooper could not prove wrongdoing.
“We can’t just grab people’s phones,” Thorson said.
Traffic tickets for texting in the state of Washington could start at $136, while a negligent driving citation could be around $550, Thorson said.
Drivers can also be distracted when on a hands-free device, which could affect peripheral vision, Baldwin said.
“Your peripheral vision is one of the things that keeps you safe at intersections,” Baldwin said “You need peripheral vision to deal with all of that.”
‘It can wait’
The state traffic safety commission has conducted campaigns and events, sometimes involving temporary patrol increases, to help officers look out for drivers on their cellphones.
In Bellingham, officers used the height advantage of riding in a utility truck to look for drivers using phones in their cars.
“They wrote an amazing number of tickets in a very short amount of time,” Baldwin said.
The traffic safety commission also works with insurance companies to issue grants to schools that help educate new drivers. Peers and instructors check items off a list and send out photos to verify that they complete certain tasks.
“They’re already new drivers and there’s a learning process,” Baldwin said. “Add a cellphone into the mix and that’s really dangerous.”
Her advice? Turn it off, put it in your glove box or hand it to a passenger.
“It can wait,” she said. “Drive while you’re driving.”