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Editorial: As cell law sinks in, compliance will follow

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 9, 2010

Warning to motorists. Don’t let this be you:

“Oh no! I have to hang up. I’m being pulled over!”

“What for?”

“Beats me!”

Starting Thursday, drivers need to put down their phones or risk a $124 ticket. Don’t count on ignorance being an excuse, because this has been a secondary offense for two years. You should already know it’s a violation. The difference now is that it is a primary offense, meaning you don’t have to do something else wrong first.

When a law enforcement officer sees you holding that phone and talking or texting, you can be pulled over. Teenage drivers (ages 16 to 18) can’t even use hands-free devices.

Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste said last month that drivers should not expect a grace period to get used to the law. “They would look right at our troopers with phones held to their ears. They knew that without another violation we couldn’t do anything,” Batiste said.

Spokane County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Dave Reagan agreed: “I think most people know it’s illegal. They just don’t obey.”

Consistent enforcement will be important, especially at the outset. Law enforcement needs to send a uniform message that the law is being taken seriously. The quicker the consequences become well-known, the sooner this dangerous practice will recede.

A good model is the seat belt law. When it was a secondary offense, the compliance rate was a measly 36 percent in 1986. In 2002, when the infraction became a primary offense, 83 percent complied. Now, it’s 96.5 percent. The threat of a $124 ticket gets a driver’s attention.

Rather than learn from that lesson, Washington was the only state to make its cell phone law a secondary offense. Two years later, lawmakers wisely changed that.

Expect a lot of tickets at the outset. Drivers can be seen every day flouting the current law. The compulsion to hold a phone conversation will be hard for some people to overcome. Tough. It’s a dangerous practice – as hazardous as drunken driving, according to many studies. The inconvenience of pulling over or delaying the call just doesn’t measure up.

Drivers in Idaho didn’t get any help from their Legislature, despite widespread support. Gem State lawmakers failed to even pass a simple law against texting while driving. Instead they got bogged down in details such as sending vs. receiving texts, as if either practice were safe.

Nonetheless, once they cross the border into Washington, Idaho drivers will be in for a rude awakening if they remain ignorant of the new law.

To respond online, click on Opinion under the Topics menu at www.spokesman.com.


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