Washington broke ground nationally in 2007 with a law banning drivers from the practice of texting while operating a motor vehicle. Eight years later, 44 states and four U.S. territories have banned texting for drivers. With fast advances occurring in technology it already is time to consider updating this state’s pioneering law.
The Washington Traffic Safety Commission is asking for a revision that makes clear that a ban includes any hand-held use of a cell phone or electronic device by a driver. This would overcome judges’ barrow, literal interpretation of the current law, according to Angie Ward, who oversees the commission’s program that targets distracted driving.
Senate Bill 5656 – sponsored by Republican Sen. Ann Rivers of La Center – bars the holding of a personal wireless communications device in one’s hand while driving or using such a tool to engage in any form of electronic data retrieval or data communication while driving. Fines would start at $124 and double after a second offense for any subsequent infraction in a five-year period.
The Washington State Patrol supports the law change, and so does the author of the 2007 bill, former state representative Joyce McDonald, a Puyallup Republican. McDonald says that barring any hands-on use of a phone for email or web surfing was her original intent when she sought to ban texting to save young lives.
“I think it is a really good idea to strengthen the law and make it clear ... what is allowed and what is not allowed,’’ McDonald says.
The bill makes exceptions for personnel operating an emergency services vehicle, and for motorists who use a cell phone to contact emergency services personnel. It also allows use of hands-free systems and does not apply to built-in vehicle navigation systems.
Fast-moving innovations in technology are making the update necessary, according to Ward and other commission staff. A Seattle Times story this week noted that the original ban took effect the same year the first of six generations of iPhones became available, and smart-phone use has skyrocketed ever since.
The State Patrol reports that cell use was a “contributing factor” in about 550 collisions statewide in 2014.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says 44 states have banned text messaging for drivers and at least 12 states including Washington have gone further to ban hand-held phone use by all drivers. Other states prohibit cell use by young drivers, school bus drivers or have taken other steps, but no state has banned all cell use by drivers.
Evidence showing how well laws are reducing distracted driving is hard to come by, according to Ward. Any would-be gains may be getting erased as new technology gives motorists more ways to work around the law, she said.
An observational study done by Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center and partners issued in January 2014 found tickets for cell use rose after state law changed in 2010 to let police stop a motorist based on suspicion of illegal cell use. It said driver citations for texting remained low but that motorists said they’d put down the phones if they got a ticket.
In that light, Rivers’ proposal makes sense. Lawmakers should look closely at traffic safety evidence to craft a law that works better.