Cell-phone rule raises worry of another danger

The state law banning people from using hand-held cell phones while driving goes into effect in June. As drivers across Washington prepare to ditch the phone or get a wireless device, Washington State Patrol troopers expect to see more people pulling over on the side of the freeway to use a cell phone.

In most cases, that’s illegal and could cost you $124, trooper Keith Leary said Monday.

Existing state law prohibits drivers from stopping alongside most major freeways except in emergencies, unless otherwise posted, state Department of Transportation spokeswoman Melanie Coon said.

Just in Snohomish County last year, troopers encountered more than 7,500 drivers stopped on the shoulders of interstates and state highways, Leary said. Many of these drivers ran out of gas, had car problems or stopped to attend to small children in the car, but every day, troopers also encountered drivers who stopped to talk on their cell phone.

“We do understand drivers are trying to do the right thing and not create a hazard but they are potentially creating a hazard for themselves and other drivers if they can’t get back into traffic safely,” Leary said.

Sometimes even patrol cars with flashing lights get hit while stopped along a freeway shoulder, he said. In November, a trooper had to be cut free from his unmarked cruiser after it was hit by a suspected drunken driver while stopped along I-5 near Smokey Point. Luckily, he wasn’t seriously hurt.

“It’s dangerous for us even with the training we have,” Leary said. “I don’t think people understand the consequences when they stop on the shoulder.”

Troopers also regularly investigate instances of cars being hit as drivers try to get back into traffic and fail to accurately judge how fast traffic behind them is approaching.

Stopping along the shoulder also can slow emergency response.

First responders use freeway shoulders to bypass traffic tie-ups to get to crash scenes, Leary said.

Washington joined five other states this year in making it a primary offense for drivers to hold a cell phone to their ear or to send text messages while behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. Using a cell phone to summon help, report illegal activity or prevent injury to another person is permitted.

Hands-free devices are fair game except for teenagers. The law bans drivers under 18 from using communication devices at all.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, was passed after lengthy public debate. Concerns about drivers pulling over on the freeway to use a cell phone never came up, according to Eide’s staff.

At least 13 serious injury accidents along state roads were linked to hand-held communication devices in 2008, according to state Department of Transportation data. Using a hands-free device contributed to another four serious injury accidents and one death.

If your car breaks down, troopers will help you get off the freeway safely or get back into traffic as quickly as possible, Leary said. But if you want to hold a cell phone to your ear, you’ll have to exit the freeway and pull over into a parking lot, or wait until you reach your destination.

“Our advice to people is, if you are going to stop to use a cell phone, look for a place to exit, because you are endangering yourself,” Coon said.

Katya Yefimova: 425-339-3452, kyefimova@heraldnet.com.

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