Lawmakers looking to toughen law against distracted driving

OLYMPIA — For the second straight year, the state has lost out on hundreds of thousands of federal dollars to combat distracted driving.

The reason is Washington’s primary weapon in the effort — a 2007 law banning drivers from texting or talking on hand-held cellphones — isn’t strong enough for those doling out the money.

The arrival of iPhones and smartphones allowed drivers to do many things not covered by the state law, such as checking email and making stock trades.

Unless the law is updated to ban the growing list of potentially distracting activities and punish repeat offenders with larger fines, Washington won’t be getting any of that federal dough.

“Basically our law is old,” said Shelly Baldwin, legislative and media affairs manager for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

To dramatize the point, the commission posted a video on YouTube earlier this month showing officers encountering drivers who are doing things that can’t be ticketed.

In one instance, a motorist stopped by a Bellingham police officer explained that he was making currency trades, not texting. In another, a driver told a Washington State Patrol trooper he was typing information into a GPS device.

“Therein lies one of the difficulties with the texting law,” the trooper says on the video. “Everything else you can do on your phone is just as dangerous as texting but these other behaviors aren’t necessarily illegal.”

Washington was a trailblazer when it enacted its law banning the sending of texts or talking on hand-held cellphones while operating a moving vehicle. Now it’s not, and safety commission leaders have drafted legislation they hope will be acted on by lawmakers in 2015.

It contains sweeping changes.

Drivers would no longer be able use a hand-held phone or other wireless communications device in any manner except in emergencies or if the vehicle is pulled off the road and not moving. Also, the rules would apply when the driver is behind the wheel of vehicle, whether it is moving or temporarily stopped for something, such as a traffic light.

As things stand now, one can text while at a stop light or converse on a phone in its speaker function without violating the law.

Those pressing for change also want repeat offenders to pay more. Tickets carry a $124 fine and today the amount doesn’t change regardless of how many one receives. Under the draft bill, a second offense within three years would result in a $248 penalty, Baldwin said.

Commission leaders tried to get a similar bill passed last session. They hope for more success this year as they point out that the changes will help law enforcement while putting the state in better position to garner federal funds for enforcing the distracted driving law.

Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, a patrol sergeant with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, has been approached to sponsor the bill, or a version of it.

He’s not committed to taking the lead but said he agrees the state needs a broader distracted-driving law, one that encompasses “whatever is going on inside your car that takes away your attention from driving.”

He said his motivation isn’t obtaining federal funds but increasing safety on the roads. He said he’s not sure the state should craft a bill to satisfy all the demands of the federal grant program.

“I think the law can definitely be updated,” he said “I have not got to the point where I think the state needs to be as prescriptive as the feds want us to be.”

In the past two years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has doled out $7.9 million to states for use in distracted driving education and enforcement campaigns.

But it’s not been easy to get because the federal requirements exceed what is on the books in most states.

Only seven states obtained grants in the first year with amounts ranging from $450,000 to $1.6 million. Just one, Connecticut, received money in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 and it was for $2.3 million.

Washington, if successful, would likely receive no less than $450,000 and upwards of $1 million to $2 million, officials estimated.

Earlier this year, the state spent $165,000 in a targeted enforcement campaign. It was conducted at the same time as a national media campaign against distracted driving dubbed “U Drive. U Text. U Pay,” Baldwin said.

Another $5,000 went toward developing a training video for law enforcement officers on cellphone and texting laws.

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

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