Distracted-driving bill hits a guardrail in Olympia

OLYMPIA — A Senate bill to combat distracted driving died Tuesday after crashing into a barrier of bipartisan opposition in a key House committee.

The bill would have expanded Washington’s ban on driving while texting or talking on a hand-held cellphone to cover such things as sending emails and searching the Web.

The committee chairwoman said she was prepared to act on the bill but didn’t when it became clear how few Democrats or Republicans on the panel supported the measure.

“The votes just weren’t there,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee.

She said she didn’t detect an overriding reason for the opposition. Members understood the dangers posed by distracted drivers but “when you go to someone and say you’re not going to be able to pick up your phone in the car you get a different reaction,” Clibborn said.

Under Senate Bill 5656, drivers would have no longer been able to hold, read from or manually enter information into a wireless communications device while driving except in emergencies or if the vehicle was pulled off the road and not moving. The ban extended to when a car is stopped at a traffic light or stop sign.

“I’m disappointed,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, the bill’s prime sponsor. “In my research about the necessity of this bill, I came to know what a real threat to our youth distracted driving has become.”

Rivers pointed to a recent AAA study that found distraction was a factor in nearly six of 10 moderate-to-severe crashes involving teenage drivers. The second-largest cause of distraction was use of a cellphone, the study found.

“It is sad to see a decision of inaction on their behalf,” she said. “We may well feel the pain of the House’s inaction.”

Shelly Baldwin, legislative and media relations manager for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, echoed the sentiment.

“We need a law that is applicable to our current technology,” she said. “We just need a clear and stronger law to prevent lives from being lost.”

Ironically, Tuesday’s action came with more than 100 law enforcement agencies taking part in a statewide crackdown on distracted drivers. Between April 1 and 15, state troopers are targeting motorists observed talking on a hand-held phone or texting — part of the national “U Drive, U Text, U Pay” enforcement campaign.

In 2007, Washington was one of the first states to enact a ban on texting or talking on a hand-held cellphone while operating a moving vehicle. There are now 13 states that outlaw use of hand-held phones, and 44 states bar sending texts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But Washington’s law hasn’t changed, even with the arrival of iPhones and other smartphones enabling drivers to do many things not envisioned in 2007, such as checking email, making stock trades, viewing Facebook or searching the Web.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission has been trying to update the law for a couple of years and found a solid ally in Rivers.

But it ran into lawmakers like Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, a patrol sergeant with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department, who didn’t see the necessity for the change.

He said the bill focused too much on the tools of distraction and not enough on the behavior of the driver. There are laws on the books that can be used to cite someone who is clearly driving distracted, he said.

“This bill addressed a very small fraction of the issue,” he said. “I think we need tougher enforcement of the laws we already have in place.”

Rivers said she will re-introduce the bill in the 2016 session.

Clibborn said it “probably will do better next year,” then cautioned against declaring it dead this session, given that House Democrats and Senate Republicans are engaged in talks on budget and policy matters.

“Because it is a Republican bill and we’re doing negotiations, you never know what might come up,” she said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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