Health & Fitness

Pay attention to this. Distracted driving kills people every day.

What you must know about Washington’s distracted driving law

Washington state's distracted driving law strictly limits what you can and can't do with your cellphone while driving.
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Washington state's distracted driving law strictly limits what you can and can't do with your cellphone while driving.

It’s a common experience: You’re driving down the street and your phone starts to buzz. You glance down. A name flashes on the screen, or worse, a whole sentence, and the temptation is to look more closely or pick the phone up.

This urge to multitask while driving is called distracted driving, and it kills 9 people every day in the United States, and injures more than 1,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It isn’t just cell phones. These distractions range from eating or drinking in the car, to fatigue and “spacing out.” Generally, distractions can be visual (looking at your phone), manual (taking your hands off the wheel), or cognitive (just not paying enough attention).

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), reading or sending a text takes your eyes off the road for about 5 seconds. Traveling 55 miles an hour, that’s long enough to drive the length of a football field. The NHTSA also states that 3,477 people were killed, and an estimated 391,000 people were injured in 2015 in crashes that involved a distracted driver.

Young people are at the greatest risk. The CDC states that drivers under the age of 20 have the highest rate of distraction-related fatality crashes. In their Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance 2015 report, they reported that 42 percent of high school students who drove in the past 30 days reported sending a text or email while driving. Furthermore, students who reported that they often text while driving were found to be less likely to wear a seatbelt, more likely to ride with a driver that had been drinking, and were more likely to drink and drive themselves.

There is important data available about the risks of distracted driving in Thurston County too. According to the Thurston County Healthy Youth Survey from 2016:

  • In the past month, more than 1 in 5 (22 percent) of Thurston County sixth-graders said they rode in a vehicle with someone who was texting or emailing while driving.

  • Not all Thurston County teens drive, but of county 10th-graders who do, 17 percent said they drive while texting and emailing.

  • Among Thurston County high school seniors, 56 percent of those who drive text and email while on the road.

In addition:

  • In 2018, there were two deaths and eight serious injuries in Thurston County (all ages) related to distracted driving.

  • Since 2010, there have been 47 deaths (all ages) involving a distracted driver.

Luckily, there are ways to reduce the risks, not just for young drivers, but for all of us. One option is to turn off your phone when you drive, or set up blocking notifications that reply with an “I’m driving right now” message and save your call or text for when you’ve parked.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) offers some more tips:

  • Give clear instructions: Give new drivers simple, clear instructions not to use their wireless devices while driving. Before new drivers get their licenses, discuss the fact that taking their eyes off the road — even for a few seconds — could kill or injure someone.

  • Lead by example: No one should text and drive. Be an example for others and if you need to text or talk on the phone, pull over to a safe place. Set rules for yourself and your household regarding distracted driving.

  • Become informed and be active: Tell family, friends and organizations to which you belong about the importance of driving without distractions. Take information to your kids’ schools and ask that it be shared with students and parents.

Whether it’s texting, calling, or sipping a fancy coffee — all can keep you from being focused and safe while we’re driving. Take time to set some boundaries, for yourself and for your family, to stay safe and healthy on the road.

Reach Dr. Rachel C. Wood, health officer for Thurston and Lewis counties, at 360-867-2501,, or @ThurstonHealth on Twitter.