Gov. Jay Inslee signed a new, tougher version of the state’s distracted driving law this week. This needed law takes effect July 23.
Senate Bill 5289 bars any manual use of electronic devices — whether cellphones, laptops or tablets — while driving. That goes much further than current law, which bars text-messaging while driving or holding a mobile phone up to one’s ear while driving.
The new law was the bipartisan work of Republican Sen. Ann Rivers of LaCenter and Democratic Rep. Jessyn Farrell of Seattle. Rivers and Farrell intended the law to take effect in 2019.
But Inslee, a Democrat, vetoed that provision, explaining that “public safety is better served by implementing this bill this year.’’
Inslee might be right. A Washington Traffic Safety Commission observation study found 10 percent of drivers are distracted at any time by cellphone use.
But public safety is aided only if drivers heed the rule. We worry a little whether motorists or police are going to be ready, even with a six-month phase-in period when the State Patrol plans to issue warnings and handbills that outline how the new law works.
The Traffic Safety Commission plans to work with WSP and other state, federal and local agencies such as schools to educate the public.
The cellphone bill was accompanied by passage of other welcome road-safety measures this year, which Inslee also signed:
▪ SB 5037 makes it a felony to have a fourth drunken-driving offense in 10 years. This bipartisan proposal was sponsored by Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley.
▪ SB 5075 toughens oversight over the behavioral health and recovery division inside the Department of Social and Health Services that monitors treatment programs. Republican Sen. Randi Becker of Eatonville sponsored the bill after hearing reports of alcoholism- and drug-treatment counselors soliciting bribes in exchange for falsified reports of attendance at treatment sessions or of urine tests that verify sobriety.
The new law requires that settlements between providers and regulators — a bit like plea bargains — are substantiated by the Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery. An annual report to the Legislature is required; copies of settlements that reduce the number of alleged violations must be shared with legislators.
The new distracted driving law is sweeping and has the most impact for the public. It affects use of virtually all personal electronic devices — with exceptions to contact emergency services. It also permits operation of devices such as citizens-band radios. And it allows minimal use of a finger to activate or turn off a cell or tablet.
The fine is $136 for a first infraction. A legislative analysis says a second offense is $235. More stinging, the offenses are reportable to insurers, which can then raise premiums.
The law also allows a $100 fine for other dangerous distractions. These could be caused by a coffee spill or a nuzzling pet. A police officer must see this kind of secondary offense such as heavy swerving or add it to a primary offense such as running a red light.
Passage of all these needed measures should help make our state highways and roads a little safer.