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Tougher penalties eyed for driving cell phone users

OLYMPIA — Some Washington state lawmakers are looking to crack down even more on drivers who use a cell phone without a handsfree device.

Three years ago, the state approved a law that would slap drivers with an extra fine if they were caught holding a cell phone when pulled over for another infraction, such as speeding.

But under two companion bills being introduced this year, failing to use a handsfree device would be reason enough for a $124 ticket.

“It’s dangerous,” said Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way. “It’s time to make these people hang up and drive.”

The proposed bills, which will receive public hearings before Senate and House committees on Monday, would also outlaw any cell phone use by a driver with a learner’s permit or an intermediate license, which is given to drivers under 18 years old.

Washington is one of six states and the District of Columbia that have passed laws regulating cell phone use by drivers, but is the only one that that considers the use of a phone without a handsfree device a secondary offense, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Oregon all make it a primary offense. Parts of Hawaii have passed bans as well. Oregon’s ban on driving while using hand-held phones went into effect early this month.

“Anyone with common sense knows it’s dangerous,” said Eide, who has been pushing for a handsfree requirement for almost a decade. “We don’t get in our vehicles to talk on the phone.”

The proposed bills do provide exemptions for drivers who are using a hearing aid, operating a tow truck or emergency vehicle and those who are reporting a crime or an emergency.

But the idea doesn’t have complete support. Rep. Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, said there are thousands of distractions drivers face on the road, and the government getting involved to outlaw one is not the right way to go about making the roads safer.

“I don’t agree in pinpointing this one thing and forming this panacea that everything will be all right if you focus on cell phones,” he said. “It’s a common sense thing. We don’t need legislation, we could do it through education.”

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said this year’s bills are still in their early stages and notes that the topic is controversial, with versions of the previous bill taking multiple attempts, and years, to pass.

The 2007 bill attempted to make the use of cell phones without headsets a primary offense, but was changed to secondary before passage.

The Washington State Patrol has ticketed 2,341 drivers since that law went into effect on July 1, 2008. Sgt. Freddy Williams said the laws need to be strengthened, and that this is a step the department endorses.

“We need to reduce distractions in any way we can,” he said. “Talking on a phone and texting are distractions that can prove injurious if not fatal.”

In 2006, the state passed a law making text messaging behind the wheel a primary offense. The Washington State Patrol has issued 354 tickets since that law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2008.

Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat who is sponsoring the House bill, said the public is awakening to the dangers of driving without a handsfree device.

“The impact of distracted driving, especially by cell phone use, is a big problem,” he said. “It really has turned into something with really strong momentum.”