Gov. Jay Inslee surprised even the supporters of a distracted-driving law recently when he accelerated the new crackdown, to take effect in late July.
He vetoed a compromise by the Legislature that would have postponed enforcement of the Driving Under the Influence of Electronics (DUIE) Act until 2019.
The law forbids virtually all use of handheld gadgets such as phones, tablets, laptop computers and gaming devices while driving.
Inslee’s move suddenly puts the state under pressure to mount an education campaign and get more troopers onto the roadways, if there are to be any teeth.
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Nearly one-tenth of motorists are holding a device at any given moment, state observation teams have found. That far outnumbers traffic police on the road and raises questions about the law’s chances of success. On the other hand, the state has a history of reducing drunken driving and posting a 95 percent compliance with seat-belt requirements.
Q: When does the law take effect?
A: Approximately July 23, which is 90 days after the Legislature’s regular session adjourned, the governor’s staff says.
“Public safety is better served by implementing this bill this year,” Inslee wrote in his partial-veto message.
Bill sponsor Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, had initially proposed a Jan. 1, 2018, start, and then agreed to a year delay, in negotiations with the House, to give police and drivers more time to prepare.
“Now that the governor has dramatically shortened the timeline, people need to be ready much sooner,” she said in a statement.
Lavera Wade of Spokane Valley, whose grandson Sam Thompson died while texting on Highway 195 near Colfax in 2014, has volunteered to join what will she thinks will be a “fast and furious” outreach. People are talking about distraction, and July 23 arrives soon after a huge wave of news coverage, on both sides of the mountains, she said.
“Nothing’s going to be perfect,” she said, “but my feeling is, doing it this fast is going to make it better.”
Q: What will be banned?
A: Texting is already illegal, as is holding a cellphone at the ear. Drivers constantly flout those rules, or evade them by holding a phone between the legs, or just below the chin.
The new bill forbids handheld uses, including composing or reading any kind of message, picture or data. Photography while driving is illegal.
Drivers also cannot use handheld devices while at a stop sign or red-light signal.
Q: What is still legal?
A: Drivers may still use a smartphone mounted in a dashboard cradle, for instance to use a navigation app, but not to watch video. The new law permits “minimal use of a finger” to activate an app or device.
Built-in electronic systems, such as hands-free calling and maps, remain legal.
Calls to 911 or other emergency services are legal, as are urgent calls between transit employees and dispatchers.
Amateur radio equipment and citizens-band radio, remain legal.
Handheld devices may be used if the driver has pulled off the roadway or traffic lanes, where the vehicle “can safely remain stationary.”
Q: What are the penalties?
A: The standard traffic fine of $136 would nearly double to $235 on the second distracted-driving citation.
Q: Is DUIE a primary offense?
A: Yes. A police officer can pull someone over just for using a handheld device.
Q: Will a ticket raise my insurance rates?
Distracted-driving citations will be reported on a motorist’s record for use by the insurance industry, which testified in favor of the law.
There was considerable debate about that, as some lawmakers sought to keep DUIE offenses off the record, the way texting violations are currently. But the safety hawks managed to make them reportable — a penalty that House sponsor Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, gained in exchange for allowing that now-vetoed 1½ year implementation time.
The cost of a citation on personal insurance bills will depend on what the data show, about a correlation between someone’s violations and crash history, said Nicole Ganley, public-affairs director for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.
“It’s modernizing the driving code, so that all the behaviors are included,” she said. “This new law will serve as a deterrent and draws a line in the sand that this behavior is not safe for anyone.”
Q: What about other kinds of distraction?
A: Miscellaneous distractions such as grooming or eating will be a secondary offense, meaning a ticket may be issued if a law-enforcement officer pulls you over for some other offense, such as speeding or a dangerous lane change. The penalty will be an extra $30.
Q: Who will enforce this?
A: Lack of staffing is a potential weakness.
Earlier this year, there were as few as a half-dozen State Patrol troopers some shifts in the whole Bellevue detachment, patrolling Interstate 405 and Interstate 90. Those teams should grow somewhat.
The Legislature voted to raise trooper pay 16 percent this year, based on a governor’s agreement with the troopers’ labor union, in hopes of winning recruits and stopping attrition.
A new class of 49 people just graduated from the academy May 1, of which 16 will work in King County, said Trooper Rick Johnson, a spokesman in Bellevue. Another class is due in September. “We’re moving in the right direction, definitely,” he said.
In early April, the state’s law-enforcement agencies spent $400,000 in federal grants to add 6,000 patrol hours aimed at driver distraction. The same program in April 2016 produced 5,412 citations statewide, double the usual monthly pace, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.
Statistics show 171 of 568 road deaths in the state in 2015 were blamed on some form of driver distraction, not necessarily electronics.
Officials haven’t issued plans for any extra patrols, to break in the new law this summer. To date, only $19,000 has been budgeted to support the distraction law.
Lawmakers weren’t intending to fund a big education blitz until next year.
So the safety commission will do what it can, to possibly include informational cards for police to hand drivers, before the tougher law begins July 23, according to spokeswoman Erica Stineman.
Gina Bagnariol-Benavides, who also testified for tougher laws, said the governor’s sudden change was “a pretty exciting thing.”
“Common sense tells you (that) you shouldn’t use your phone behind the wheel of a car,” Bagnariol-Benavides said. “I don’t think there’s a huge amount of education that should have to go along with that.”