New Washington State Patrol troopers stand huddled in a hallway before the Washington State Patrol Academy graduation ceremonies in the Capitol rotunda, Wednesday in Olympia. The 49 graduates of the 107th Trooper Basic Training Class went through nearly six months of field and academy training, and were given the oath of office by Washington State Supreme Court Justice Mary Fairhurst. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Editorial: New laws, more troopers on road will save lives

By The Herald Editorial Board

Three pieces of legislation passed recently by the state House and Senate and now on the governor’s desk should mean safer roads and fewer wrecks, injuries and deaths as the state continues its Target Zero campaign to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030.

Among the accomplishments during the recently completed session:

Senate Bill 5037, which allows a driver to be charged with a felony for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs if the driver has three or more gross misdemeanor convictions for impaired driving within a 10-year period. The current threshold didn’t trigger a felony charge until after the fourth conviction.

Senate Bill 5289, which makes it illegal for a driver to hold a cellphone to his or her ear, use a phone to read, write or send a text message or hold a phone to use other apps, and increases the fine for a second citation.

And passage of the state transportation budget, which included significant raises for Washington State Patrol troopers that are expected to help the patrol attract and retain its officers and stem a steady exodus who were taking better-paying jobs with other law enforcement agencies in the state and elsewhere.

Ramping up a drunken driving charge to a class C felony, which carries with it a 13- to 17-month prison sentence, rather than less time in a county jail, will provide earlier intervention and should add incentive for those arrested to take seriously their addiction and not to risk their lives and the lives of others.

It may not work on all, as was shown by the recent arrest of a Renton man for what could be his 11th DUI, two of which have resulted in felony convictions, but an estimated 200 drivers a year would be charged with a felony under the new standard.

And on top of fines that average about $3,700, the legislation also bumps the fines by $50, which will go toward a grant program, administered by the Washington State Traffic Commission, for community programs that address driving under the influence.

The new restrictions on distracted driving also should help reduce traffic accidents. While the $136 fine remains unchanged for a first infraction, the incident of distracted driving can now be reported to a driver’s insurance company. And the fine for a second infraction will increase to $235.

A review of the health impacts of the distracted driving legislation noted that the state’s annual collision summary for 2015 found 895 collisions that involved drivers distracted by an electronic device, five of which involved fatalities and 13 of which resulted in serious injuries. The review concluded that, while actual numbers can’t be known, the legislation will reduce the frequency of distracted driving as well as deaths and injuries.

With limited exceptions, the changes should make it easier for police to cite drivers who are using smartphones and leaving themselves open to dangerous distractions. The one drawback to the bill is that it won’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2019.

But neither change to the rules of the road means anything without enforcement, which is why it’s encouraging to see the state address inadequate pay for State Patrol troopers.

Under the transportation budget, which funds State Patrol operations, troopers will see a 16 percent increase this July and another 3 percent increase in July 2018. Sergeants, lieutenants and captains will get 20 percent and 3 percent increases during the same period.

The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield reported Tuesday that last year’s salary increase for troopers already has slowed the loss of troopers to other agencies. Through mid-March, the patrol had seen 12 retirements, but only one trooper had been hired away by another agency, reversing what had been a recurring loss of seven to nine troopers a month in 2015.

Wednesday, the State Patrol marked the graduation and swearing in of 49 cadets, at least seven of whom will serve within Snohomish County, cutting the existing vacancies within the patrol to fewer than 100.

Some may wonder whether Target Zero’s goal is realistic, but it recognizes that no death or injury is acceptable when it’s someone you know, someone from your family. The bills passed this month and the efforts to rebuild the ranks of the State Patrol will make a difference in saving those lives.

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