What new laws take effect in Washington today

OLYMPIA — Thinking about texting your buddy from the road about where to watch the bowl games on New Year’s Day? Better put on a headset and call instead, or else face a serious hit to the beer fund.

Under a new law that takes effect Tuesday, drivers who read and compose text messages could face a $124 ticket. If texting while driving leads to a car accident, the ticket can increase to $175.

“Any distraction is a bad distraction, but texting in particular,” said Bob Calkins, a spokesman for the Washington State Patrol. “Nobody is that good a driver that they can have their eyes down looking at a PDA and not looking at the road.”

The bill makes texting while driving a secondary offense, meaning drivers could receive a ticket only if they were pulled over for a primary offense such as speeding or running a red light.

A ticket will not become part of a driver’s record and dialing a phone is not considered text messaging. The measure exempts transit and emergency vehicle personnel, as well as anyone who is text-messaging to report illegal activity or summon emergency help. A companion measure that requires drivers to use a hands-free headset if they want to talk on their cell phone takes effect July 1.

The texting law is one of nearly 20 that take effect New Year’s Day. Most of the more than 500 measures passed by the 2007 Legislature took effect in July 2007.

Another new law allows online voter registration.

Only people with a Washington state driver’s license or state ID would be able to register to vote online. They would have to provide their first and last names, dates of birth, addresses and drivers license or state identification numbers. While the law takes effect Tuesday, the online system won’t be fully operational until Jan. 7.

The new statewide voter registration database that has been online since last year is connected to the state Department of Licensing, which has people’s signatures and photos on file. Voters would be able to fill out an application on the secretary of state’s Web site.

People of voting age who apply for drivers licenses in Washington are offered the chance to register to vote under the federal motor-voter law, but that process doesn’t reach people who get their licenses while too young to vote.

“So many people in this day and age are buying items online and doing their banking online, so I think it just fits into the 21st century lifestyle,” said Secretary of State Sam Reed.

Also Tuesday, private health insurance policies for individuals and small companies in Washington will now be required to offer coverage for mental health treatment equal to their medical benefits.

The measure expands a mental health parity law passed in 2005 that required all private health insurance policies for large groups to provide equal coverage for medical and mental health treatment. Under the new measure, that requirement expands to companies with fewer than 50 employees and to individual policies.

It means, for example, that if a health plan allows unlimited doctor visits for colds and sprains, there can’t be a cap on therapy sessions.

The phasing out of a controversial fireproofing chemical, decaBDE begins Tuesday as well.

Mattresses with deca would be banned after Tuesday, because deca alternatives already exist for mattresses.

The chemical would be prohibited in residential upholstered furniture and in televisions or computers with electronic enclosures after Jan. 1, 2011, assuming a safer alternative has been found.

There would be several exemptions, including used cars made before Jan. 1, 2008, safety systems required by the Federal Aviation Administration, and medical devices.

The measure signed into law this year prohibits the manufacture, sale or distribution of most items containing polybrominated diphenyl ethers, commonly known as PBDEs, as long as a safer alternative exists.

Two forms of PBDEs, penta and octa, are no longer produced in this country because the Indiana company that made the chemicals voluntarily stopped production in 2004 over concerns about the chemicals being detected in people and wildlife.

Other states have passed bans on penta and octa, but Washington — while banning penta and octa as well — is the first to act on deca.

Deca’s largest use is in the black plastic casings of TVs. Some companies, such as Dell, Canon and Sony, have already phased out PBDEs. Furniture manufacturers such as IKEA have also stopped using parts that have PBDEs.

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