It wasn’t difficult for Lynnwood Police Department Sgt. Jason Valentine to find drivers holding cell phones during the city’s distracted driving campaign held earlier this month. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

It wasn’t difficult for Lynnwood Police Department Sgt. Jason Valentine to find drivers holding cell phones during the city’s distracted driving campaign held earlier this month. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

Distracted driving: ‘People are just sneakier about it’

It is the cause of 30 percent of all traffic deaths across the state, and the numbers keep rising.

LYNNWOOD — In under a minute Lynnwood police Sgt. Jason Valentine spotted his first distracted driver.

Stationed near the Lynnwood Convention Center, overlooking 196th Street SW, Valentine actually had a few drivers cell phone in-hand to choose from to ticket.

After stopping a black Mustang with a driver who was checking directions to a job interview while meandering through traffic, Valentine and I were back in our spot. But quickly we were back pursuing another driver holding a phone.

It was a bit of a thrill, OK a large thrill, to jump in Valentine’s vehicle and track down each offending driver.

Valentine was one of several Lynnwood officers out during a distracted driving campaign in late March through mid-April targeting cell phone use. Officers focused primarily on the area of 196th and 36th Ave W.

“You just see violation after violation,” Valentine said. “My concern is the folks who are oblivious to the people around them.”

Last year, Lynnwood officers were on the scene at more than 1,400 collisions, resulting in over 250 injuries and one fatality, according to the city. Distracted driving or inattentiveness was the primary factor in a vast majority of these crashes.

Distracted driving is the cause of 30 percent of all traffic deaths across the state and the data shows these crashes are increasing, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. Interestingly, according to the commission, “this is the only factor in traffic deaths where women outnumber men.”

Keep in mind, at speeds of 55 mph vehicles travel 80 feet per second. So a driver who takes five seconds to glance down at a phone has gone more than a full football field without looking at the road.

In 2017, Washington’s stricter distracted driving law took effect, prohibiting hand-held cell phone (or other electronics) use while driving, stopped in traffic or at a light. This includes not just phone calls, but texting, emailing or composing a photo. Calls to 911 are still permitted.

Drivers are allowed “minimal use of a finger to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the device,” according to the state law. The first ticket will cost $136.

Stacey McShane, manager of Snohomish County’s Target Zero program, doesn’t see the new law making a difference.

“People are just sneakier about it,” she said.

Drivers are holding their phones lower in their laps, tilting their head to make it look like they are not looking down, officers have told her.

And under the new law, citations are now reported to insurance companies. That has resulted in an under-recording of the number of crashes due to distracted-driving, McShane said.

“Unless the distraction was witnessed or reported we won’t know about it,” she said.

She estimated the number of these accidents was four to five times higher than what the data shows.

To change behavior is going to take educating kids, beginning in elementary school, to the danger of cell phone use while driving, McShane said. And parents modeling good behavior.

For me it was a near miss, when I luckily looked up from my phone with less than a second to spare to slam on my brakes, coming to a stop just inches from the car ahead of me. I think of that moment every time I start to reach for my phone behind the wheel. Next habit to break, which I admit is going to be hard, is to resist checking notifications while stopped at traffic lights.

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