Washington drivers could face new distracted driving penalties

By CHRIS GRYGIEL / Associated Press

OLYMPIA — Holding a phone while driving in Washington state becomes illegal in 2019 when Gov. Jay Inslee signs a distracted driving measure passed by the Legislature.

“I am just thrilled that we have been able to forge a step forward on distracted driving,” Inslee said. “Pain and suffering and tragedy caused by this inattentiveness is very hard to bear.”

Both chambers approved the measure Wednesday. It would prohibit holding an electronic device — including phones, tablets and other electronic devices — while driving, including while in traffic or waiting for a traffic light to change. However, the measure would allow “the minimal use of a finger” to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of a personal electronic device while driving.

For months, lawmakers have discussed ways to get people to put down their phones while they’re behind the wheel.

Democratic Rep. Jessyn Farrell of Seattle, sponsor of the House bill, told the Associated Press they needed to come up with stronger penalties to enforce the law — which would replace the current texting or holding a phone to the ear while driving statute.

Farrell said the measure applies to drivers’ of all ages.

“This is the same for everyone, the idea is that we are all so into our phones that we need an equal application of the law,” she said.

Under the measure, the standard traffic fine of $136 would apply to a first offense but would increase to about $235 for a second offense. The first distracted driving offense would also be reportable to insurance companies, which could raise rates like any other moving violation.

Some lawmakers disputed the penalty, suggesting it should only apply to second offenses.

“I don’t think our people should be penalized with a first offense,” said Republican Rep. Ed Orcutt of Kalama. He opposed the bill during the House floor debate by saying some people do not drive dangerously while holding their cellphone.

“Somebody who is merely holding a cellphone in their hand is not necessarily distracted,” Orcutt said.

Republican Sen. Ann Rivers of Auburn, who is the prime sponsor of the measure, said insurance companies are beginning to recognize distracted driving as the “crisis that it is” — the same way they encourage seat-belt use and are against driving while intoxicated.

“What we have found is dollars drive behavior,” Rivers said. “If people know they are going to have to pay more overtime for their insurance because they made a bad decision, perhaps it will help them to reevaluate their behavior to not drive under the influence of electronics and to remain focused on the road.”

Farrell said the measure would go into effect in January 2019 to give the public and the state patrol some time to adjust and prepare for the change.

Another section of the bill also says a person who engages in “any activity not related to the actual operation of a motor vehicle” is subject to pay an additional fine of $100. It only applies, if an officer catches a driver being distracted while committing a standard traffic offense, such as running a stop sign because their coffee spilled or a pet jumped in their lap.

Farrell said the bill doesn’t prohibit drivers from doing other things like eating, putting on makeup or having a pet in the car while driving — But it would create an extra fine if the distraction causes the driver to drive dangerously.

Over a six-year period, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission reported 1,336 people died in motor vehicle crashes in Washington State. Of those, nearly 30 percent involved distraction.

“Accidents can happen in a blink of an eye,” Rivers said. “If you’re looking at your phone and not the road then you’re making a choice to participate in a very risky behavior that impacts not only your life but the lives of every other car around you.”

Exceptions to the bill would include using an electronic device to contact emergency services, to operate an emergency vehicle, to allow transit system dispatch services to communicate time-sensitive messages and to allow any activities that are federally authorized for commercial motor vehicle drivers. Operating an amateur radio station and two-way or citizens band radio services are also exceptions in the proposal.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states currently ban any hand-held cellphone use while driving a car and 46 states ban texting while driving. However, 37 states along with the District of Columbia ban all cell phone use by beginner or teen drivers, including Washington.

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