Cell phone ban carries little weight, police say

MILL CREEK – New legislation banning drivers from talking on their hand-held cell phones likely will be hard to enforce, local police officials said this week.

“It’s definitely going to pose some enforcement problems,” Mill Creek Police Chief Bob Crannell said. “I think it’s going to be a burden-of-proof issue. Was the person just dialing? Were they just checking the clock on the phone? I think there’s going to be some bugs to work out.”

Cell phone violators won’t be a priority for officers in Everett, Police Chief Jim Scharf said.

“If it goes into effect, obviously we’ll deal with it. It won’t be our priority. We have more important criminal issues, such as auto thefts and burglars, to address.”

Lawmakers earlier this week passed a legislation that would make it illegal to drive with aphone up to your ear. Speakerphones and headsets are OK.

The legislation has yet to be signed into law by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

If it becomes law, Washington will be one of only five places in the U.S. where it is against state law to drive with a cell phone against your ear.

Proponents say driving and chatting on a cell phone is a dangerous combination that leads to unnecessary accidents.

“Sometimes you get behind these people and you think they’re drunk. They’re not. They’re on their cell phone,” Lynnwood Police Chief Steve Jensen said. “People just aren’t paying attention. I think it’s good legislation.”

Some police officials, however, say the law, as written, won’t have much bite.

“We can’t pull you over if we just see you on a cell phone. We’ve got to see you do something else wrong,” Snohomish County Sheriff Rick Bart said. “I think it’s going to be very difficult to enforce.”

Bart said he can see the proposed law going the way of the seat belt law. That started out as a so-called secondary offense, too. Police officers couldn’t stop drivers for not wearing their seat belts.

Compliance peaked only after lawmakers changed the law to allow police to stop and cite drivers for not wearing their seat belts, Bart said.

Three years after adopting a similar law, New Jersey lawmakers are considering new legislation that would allow police officers to stop and cite someone for talking on a cell phone. Currently, it is a secondary offense, similar to what is being proposed here.

“It’s working somewhat, but because it’s a secondary offense people don’t believe it’s a law. To really make it work it should be a primary offense,” said William Cicchetti, president of the New Jersey Police Traffic Officers’ Association.

During Wednesday’s debate in the House of Representatives, opponents said the law is ambiguously written, making it difficult for law enforcement to use it.

Rep. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said it would be an infraction to have the phone next to your ear but not to hold it in your lap. And drivers can still dial while driving and then hold it up to hear the speaker without violating the law, he said.

“Don’t pass a bill that you know can’t be enforced,” he said.

Washington State Patrol officials backed the new legislation, saying they believe it will cut down on crashes.

“I don’t think it’s going to be as difficult to enforce as people think,” State Patrol Sgt. Monica Hunter said.

Police officers already stop and cite traffic violators who deny breaking the law. Those tickets hold up in court, she said.

“I get very few people who say ‘yes, I was going 20 mph over the speed limit,’” she said. “My hope is people will use the hand-free devices and I won’t have to write them a ticket. We’ll collect the data and see if it makes a difference.”

Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said he expects some wrinkles will have to be ironed out but the new legislation is a good start after several years of debating the issue.

“Although this is not the panacea to solve the problem, it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “I think the vast majority will choose not to talk on their cell phone and it will make our highways safer.”

You could be fined $101 for driving while holding a cell phone up to your ear starting July 1, 2008, if the measure becomes law.

It would be a secondary traffic infraction, meaning police cannot stop you for talking on a cell phone. Drivers may be cited if they are stopped for another offense, such as speeding.

The legislation approved this week would make it a traffic infraction for a motorist to operate “a moving motor vehicle while holding a wireless communications device to his or her ear.”

People would not be fined if they used a hands-free device such as a speaker phone, a headset or an earpiece.

It would be legal to use your hand-held cell phone to call 911 to report a crime or summon medical or other emergency help or to prevent someone from getting hurt or property from being damaged.

Emergency personnel in authorized vehicles would be exempt.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.

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