Eat, drink, groom while driving, but do so carefully or risk a ticket under new law

Driving seems to be the last thing on these motorists’ minds

A motorist uses a cell phone in Tacoma. The Washington Traffic Safety Commission has announced enhanced patrol of distracted driving April 2 through April 14.
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A motorist uses a cell phone in Tacoma. The Washington Traffic Safety Commission has announced enhanced patrol of distracted driving April 2 through April 14.

Q: Does the new distracted driving law forbid me from drinking something nonalcoholic while driving? — Don C.

A: Tons of people have had questions about how the secondary offense of dangerously distracted driving works under Washington’s new, tougher distracted driving law, which went into effect July 23.

In fact, so many people — including reporters, apparently — have misunderstood the law that the Washington State Patrol and Washington Traffic Safety Commission held a conference call Friday morning to answer questions about how the law works, and how you could get cited under it.

“We’ve seen reports that say that it’s a secondary offense to drink in your car, so that’s just not true,” said Shelly Baldwin, spokeswoman for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

According to one section of the new law, being dangerously distracted while driving refers to engaging in any activity not related to the task of driving that interferes with safely operating the vehicle.

Eating, drinking, applying makeup, shaving or having a dog on your lap while you drive remain legal as long as those things don’t cause you to drive poorly. If they do, you could be cited for a secondary offense as well as the underlying primary offense.

In other words, it’s not about things you can’t do in your car — you can still drink coffee or eat a cheeseburger while driving — but if doing those things causes you to drive illegally, you could be cited for that as well as something like changing lanes without signaling, swerving or following too closely.

“We’re not driving down the road looking for people drinking their coffee and driving perfectly,” said Capt. Monica Alexander of the Washington State Patrol.

In any situation, troopers are looking at the totality of the circumstances, they said. If you get pulled over for having expired tabs or having a tail light out, and they see a drink in your cup holder but you’ve been driving safely, they won’t have a reason to give you that secondary ticket.

But if an officer pulls you over because you were swerving and discovers you did so because you spilled coffee all over yourself, you could get an additional $99 ticket for dangerously distracted driving.

“Troopers already have discretion on ticket writing,” Alexander said. “We write (tickets for) an average of 50 percent of the people we stop, and so 50 percent of people out there on the side of the road are just getting a conversation.”

During the first six months or so the law is in effect, law enforcement officers are going to be working to educate people, instead of immediately writing tickets for every offense right off the bat, officials said.

Still, people already are annoyed about being told what they can and can’t do in their cars, especially when it comes to eating and drinking. Two days after the law went into effect, there was a petition to change it.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud