EVERETT — A new law is expected to give officers more leeway to catch distracted drivers.
As of July 23, people in Washington cannot use hand-held phones or electronics while driving. Watching videos at the wheel also will be illegal. The fine for multiple offenses has been bumped up, and records of violations will be available to insurance companies.
The change in policy followed a 30 percent increase in deaths caused by distracted driving between 2014 and 2015, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.
Gov. Jay Inslee said he plans to work with law enforcement agencies statewide over the next six months to educate drivers on the change.
Under the current law, it is illegal for drivers to hold a phone to their ear or to text. However, they can use the speaker function and hold their phone while talking. The law also predates smartphone technology, which introduces video, social media and apps into the mix.
“Before, our hands were tied,” said Sgt. Mark Francis with the Washington State Patrol. “Literally, we could only cite someone if they were reading, writing and sending a text message. Looking down at a map is just as distracting as writing a text message.”
Last year, State Patrol troopers wrote 939 tickets in Snohomish County for talking on the phone while driving. An additional 262 citations were issued for texting.
Meanwhile, there have been nearly 1,850 distracted driving-related crashes so far this year, according to Target Zero, an organization that promotes traffic safety. Distracted driving has become a more prevalent factor in fatal crashes than speeding.
Drivers are 23 times more likely to crash when inputting information into their phone, according to the traffic safety commission.
Stacey McShane, the manager of Target Zero, said she regularly sees people texting with their elbows propped on the steering wheel.
She tagged along on a DUI emphasis patrol with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office in May. The deputy she was riding with pulled over at least four people who appeared to be under the influence. It turned out they were fiddling with their phones.
“When police look at these cars, they can’t tell if they’re drunk or using their phones,” McShane said.
Francis said drivers who are looking at their phones, sleepy or impaired by drugs or alcohol exhibit the same behaviors — namely speeding and drifting out of their lane.
Under the new law, drivers can still use hands-free devices such as Bluetooth. Minimal use, such as pushing a button to initiate a call, is legal.
Other distractions, such as smoking or eating, can be treated as a secondary offense. That means the driver would have to be stopped for another traffic violation first in order to be ticketed for eating on the go. An additional fine of at least $30 can be tacked on to the citation.
It’s dangerous to be driving a motor vehicle at any speed, Francis said. “You need to be concentrating.”
A first-time distracted driving offense could cost at least $136, according to the traffic safety commission. If the same driver is issued a second ticket within five years, it could cost $272.
The money collected from citations will be deposited into an account that supports programs dedicated to preventing distracted driving.
McShane said there will be a learning curve for drivers, especially since the law takes effect next month. The Target Zero team is developing plans to get the word out.
The State Patrol is offering drivers a six-month grace period. Troopers are focusing on educating drivers and passing out pamphlets with information about the new law rather than issuing tickets.
Caitlin Tompkins: 425-339-3192; firstname.lastname@example.org.