No more leeway on cell phones

J.C. Fawcett earns a living from teaching Snohomish County residents how to drive.

He’s confident he can tell soon-to-be-licensed drivers that the roads will get a bit safer this week.

That’s because starting Thursday, law enforcement officers can stop and ticket drivers for violating Washington’s two-year-old ban on speaking on the phone while holding it to an ear or texting while driving.

Under a new law, doing so will be a primary offense. Right now, as a secondary violation, officers can only add it on to a ticket if they have pulled over a driver who is breaking another driving law, such as speeding or reckless driving.

“I think the change will have a significant and positive impact on the safety of drivers,” said Fawcett, administrator of Defensive Driving School, with 17 locations in Snohomish and King counties. “I think the majority of drivers will comply pretty quickly.”

Not doing so can result in a $124 ticket.

In 2009, the Washington State Patrol contacted 5,141 drivers about the phone in their hands and wound up writing 1,607 tickets. They handed out another 236 tickets for texting.

Those numbers could be exceeded this year as troopers are giving drivers no grace period and will be writing tickets Thursday.

“Drivers have known this is coming” and had time to equip themselves with legally usable devices, trooper Keith Leary said.

Leary thinks Thursday will spark a “sharp behavioral change” among drivers accustomed to talking or texting while behind the wheel. Hopefully, he said, it will be to cut down on such distractive behavior altogether.

Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, is finding the transition to hands-free to be a learning experience.

“I have got to get used to it. I’m in training,” she said while driving and speaking on the new equipment.

McAuliffe did oppose the law.

“The research says it is not holding the phone in your hand that is the problem. The problem is your brain is engaged while you’re talking that is the distraction,” she said.

Teenagers with an intermediate driver’s license face the biggest adjustment.

The new law completely bars them from talking or texting while behind the wheel — even with a hands-free device. The only exception is in cases of emergencies.

Starting Monday, the state Department of Licensing will be trying to get the word out to them in instructional materials to be sent to driver training schools and driver education program officials at public and private schools.

It is part of a broader statewide campaign dubbed “Talk, Text, Ticket Hang up &Drive” that the State Patrol and the licensing department plan to launch Monday.

Our goal is to push the content out and have it incorporated into the curriculum of those teaching the first-time drivers, said DOL spokesman Tony Sermonti. He said there are 70,275 teens in Washington with intermediate driver’s licenses; 7,346 of those teens are in Snohomish County.

“The primary message is you cannot use the phone at all. They can use a cell phone to dial 911 to report an emergency,” he said. “But being late to the prom is not an emergency.”

Deterring teens from texting is a big focus, he said.

“When your head is down for five seconds (to text) you’ve gone the distance of a football field,” he said.

Among the materials to be distributed is a video about Heather Lerch, a 19-year-old from Thurston County who died in a car crash in February. She was texting while driving, authorities determined.

“I applaud the new law,” said her mom, Wendy Lerch of Littlerock, who did a state-sponsored Public Service Announcement on the dangers of driving while texting.

“I don’t know if it would have prevented her death. I think this all helps people see it’s a reality. She was texting and driving and now she’s gone.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623,

By Jerry Cornfield

Herald Writer

Starting Thursday a new law takes effect making it easier for police to ticket people for texting or talking on hand-held cell phones while driving. It will toughen a 2007 law barring use of a hand-held phone or texting while behind the wheel of a moving car or truck.

This new law also bans those with intermediate driver’s licenses, typically 16- to 18-year-olds, from using any type of mobile phone or texting.

Here’s some general information on the law:

Q: Who does the law cover?

A: Almost anyone holding a cell phone to an ear while driving. If you’re using that phone or another wireless communication device to read, manually write or send a text message, you’ll be in violation, too. Those under 18 with a learner’s permit or an intermediate license cannot use a cell phone or texting device while driving, period.

Q: Who is exempt?

A: People operating emergency vehicles — police officers, firefighters and paramedics as well as tow truck drivers responding to a disabled vehicle and bus drivers contacting dispatchers with “time-sensitive” information. Also, people with hearing aids can continue to use hand-held phones.

Q: Aren’t there some exceptions for everyone?

A: Yes. Any person reporting a crime or phoning for emergency help won’t be ticketed for having a hand-held phone at their ear.

Q: Does this totally ban cell phone use while driving?

A: No. A phone operated with a hands-free device is legal. People also likely won’t be ticketed for holding a phone away from their ear and talking on it in speaker mode.

Q: How much is the ticket?

A: $124.

Q: Can I pull over to the side of the road and call?

A: No. 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.

Q: Who else does this?

A: California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington, D.C., have similar laws regarding cell phones, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Maryland will join the group this fall.

Driving while talking

Between 2006 and 2008, there were 56 drivers involved in collisions with fatal or serious injuries who were on a hand-held phone at the time of the crash.

Here’s how it breaks down

2006: 27

2007: 16

2008: 13

In the same period, there were 3,191 drivers involved in collisions in which they were on a hand-held telecommunication device at the time of the crash. This number includes the 56 drivers (above) and incidents in which all drivers involved in a crash were on a hand-held phone.

Here’s how it breaks down

2006: 1,246

2007: 1,118

2008: 827

Source: Department of Transportation (provided by Washington State Patrol)

To read Senate Bill 6345, go to

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