State seeks money to enforce texting ban

Staff writerDecember 3, 2012 

State government has applied for money that could pay for Washington’s first large-scale campaign to enforce its ban on texting behind the wheel.

But Congress is dangling a bigger pot of money that is just out of reach for Washington and most states because their penalties for texting and talking on the phone while driving don’t increase for repeat offenders.

A second, third or 10th violation in Washington carries the same $124 fine as the first offense. Congress pushed to change that with a major transportation-funding law it passed in July.

State officials are considering whether penalties should change, and they’re conferring with the Legislature.

“It could be a sizable Powerball for the state if we had the laws in place that would allow us to be able to access those funds,” said Jonna VanDyk, a program manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

At least one lawmaker, whose clout is growing in Olympia, is receptive.

“Maybe we’ll increase the penalties,” said Sen. Tracey Eide. “I think that’s what the feds want us to do.”

Eide championed both the 2007 law that made it a crime for drivers to text or to put a handheld phone to their ears, and the 2010 update that allowed police to pull over cars for that reason alone.

The Des Moines Democrat is now in a key position to make changes: Her party nominated her last week to become the new chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee. She’s getting ready to move offices and take on new responsibilities, despite questions about whether minority Republicans will have enough leverage to demand some kind of power-sharing arrangement.

The number of texting-while-driving tickets shot up after the law was toughened in 2010, but Eide acknowledges drivers haven’t put down their phones despite the more than 8,000 tickets and 10,000 warnings for texting or talking handed out last year by the Washington State Patrol alone.

The state hasn’t carried out any large-scale education campaign or a targeted enforcement effort, although there have been some local efforts, notably in King County, VanDyk said.

Washington qualifies for a piece of $5.6 million being handed out to states with texting laws, and it hopes to win as much as $300,000, VanDyk said.

A total of 39 states and the District of Columbia have laws on the books that prohibit texting while driving.

At least half of the awarded money would have to be used for enforcement of the texting law or for advertising or signs that discourage distracted driving.

The money would fund ads and patrols in the style of the seat-belt campaign called Click It or Ticket, said Darrin Grondel, director of the safety commission.

“That enforcement process has been very effective with helping to change driver behavior,” Grondel said.

Washington had the highest seat belt compliance in the country last year at 97.5 percent, a recent federal report found.

But a larger amount of money that could be used for similar campaigns – $11.9 million in 2013 and $18.1 million in 2014 – is designed to go only to states with escalating fines for repeat offenders.

The state would be required to have such increasing penalties both for texting and for any use of phones by young drivers. A few states but not many have texting fines that ramp up, according to AAA. Such fines are even more rare for handheld phone bans.

John Bowman is a spokesman for the National Motorists Association, which is concerned with laws it sees as encroaching on drivers’ rights. He said warnings and education are more effective tools than steeper penalties.

“People respond in a lot of ways better to a softer approach on these issues,” he said.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@

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