State Senate votes to ban holding phones while driving

By Alexia Myers, Associated Press

OLYMPIA — A bill that bans holding an electronic device while driving to reduce distracted driving incidents passed in the Washington state Senate Monday.

Senate Bill 5289 passed on a 36-13 vote and heads to the House.

Republican Sen. Ann Rivers, the sponsor of the bill, called it a good public safety measure that repeals the current statute “and replaces it with a much more simple and easier to enforce piece of law.”

Currently people are guilty of an infraction if they hold a phone to their ear while driving, or are caught text messaging.

Under the new measure, drivers would not be allowed to hold a cellphone, tablet or other electronic device in their hands while driving on a public roadway, including while being stopped in traffic. Things like holding a phone to text or use social media or watch a video would be illegal under this measure.

However, the bill would allow the use of a finger to activate or deactivate a function of a device, such as using Siri on the iPhone, and the use of a built-in touch screen control panel within a vehicle to control basic functions like the radio or air conditioning.

Democratic Sen. Marko Liias spoke in favor of the bill.

Liias brought up emotional testimony that was heard at a public hearing last month.

“Someone was not paying attention, came around a corner and struck him and he was killed instantly,” Liias said, about a man who was killed while working as a flagger. “For the mother who lost her son just doing his job on the side of the road, for so many people across the state who have lost so many I think it’s time for us to get serious, to take action this year and to move this bill forward.”

Republican Sen. Jim Honeyford opposed the legislation. He said he was concerned for people like himself who use hearing aids and must hold a phone in order to be able to speak and hear clearly while driving.

“If I try to use it through the car system I get a lot of road noise and I don’t understand the calls,” Honeyford said.

Other exceptions include contacting emergency services, operating amateur radio stations and operating tow trucks and other emergency vehicles. The new measure would also double the fine, which is currently $136 if caught texting or holding a phone to the ear, while driving for second and subsequent offenses within five years.

“These sorts of accidents are happening more and more on our highways,” Liias said. “This bill gets serious about it, makes these infractions sting a bit more so that people will begin to change their behavior and save lives.”

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