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Would you notice a clown on a unicycle if you were texting? Maybe not

OLYMPIA -- Texting or talking on a cell phone is so distracting that someone doing either likely won’t notice a unicycling clown passing in front of them, a university professor said.

Ira Hyman, a professor of psychology at Western Washington University, was one of a series of people urging the Legislature to make sending a text message or talking on a cell phone while driving a primary offense which can get a driver a ticket all by itself. Right now in Washington, it’s a secondary offense, meaning driver only gets a ticket if he or she has broken some other traffic law.

Hyman said a study at WWU tested how distracted a person texting or talking on a cell phone can be. A significant number of students failed to notice a clown on a unicycle passing in front of them on campus while texting or talking.

“If you can miss a clown on a unicycle, what else can you miss?” Hyman asked the Senate Transportation Committee.

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Fred Wright, operator of a driver training school, called accidents from texting and cell phone talking a national epidemic: “I’m convinced cell-phone driving is the new drunk driving.”

But the bill, which only bans phone conversations on hand-held devices, doesn’t go far enough, Hyman and others said. It should ban all talking by drivers, even if they have hands-free devices.

“It’s not what your hands are doing,” Hyman said. “It’s what your head is doing.”

Cliff Webster, a lobbyist for Verizon, said the cell phone company supports changing the current law to make texting or talking on a hand-held device a primary offense. But he didn’t know if the industry would support a ban on all cell phone use by drivers.

“People use them for emergencies and for reporting accidents,” he said in an interview after the hearing. Cell phones are a distraction for drivers, he added, but so is listening to the radio, talking to a passenger or having children in the back seat.

Research suggests, however, that cell phone use is substantially worse than listening to the radio or talking to a person next to them, Hyman told the committee.

A lobbyist for the Spokane Transit Authority asked for one amendment to the bill, which would allow bus drivers to use the hand-held radios in buses. Drivers are already forbidden to use their cell phones to talk or text while driving, but use the two-way radios to talk with dispatchers about changes on the routes, which would be illegal under the current bill, Kathleen Collins said.

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