Drivers beware. Starting today, picking up that cell phone could trigger patrol sirens.
For two years, talking or text messaging on a cell phone while driving has been illegal in Washington, but not enough to warrant a stop by police unless another crime or violation was suspected.
That changes today, when a law takes effect that moves the use of wireless devices while driving from a secondary to a primary offense, authorizing law enforcement to slap motorists with a $124 ticket.
“Hopefully people just quit doing it,” said Officer Jennifer DeRuwe, spokeswoman for the Spokane Police Department.
No extra patrols are expected, but don’t expect a grace period.
“Drivers have already had nearly two years to adjust their driving habits,” said Washington State Patrol Chief John R. Batiste. “We will fully enforce this law from day one.”
Law enforcement officials expect an increase in tickets beginning today.
“If you’re holding the phone to your ear, you’re likely to be stopped,” said WSP Capt. Chris Gundermann.
Texting motorists can be more difficult to spot, but police say they’ve had practice.
“We’ll be looking for people who clearly aren’t watching the road,” Gundermann said. “Sooner or later the phone comes up high enough that we can see it and make the stop.”
Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Dave Reagan said he’s ticketed several drivers under the secondary offense law – most of whom because they failed to use a turn signal.
“It was because of the cell phone,” Reagan said. “You can’t hold the phone, hold the steering wheel and reach for the turn signal at the same time.”
In 2008, the first year the law was in effect, WSP troopers handed out 824 tickets for talking and 118 for texting statewide. This year so far, WSP troopers have issued 106 tickets for texting and 533 for talking.
In Spokane, 746 tickets were issued for use of a cell phone while driving in 2009, said Steve Hallstrom, chief prosecutor for the city of Spokane. In Spokane County, outside the city, 963 tickets were issued. That includes texting and talking.
“I personally can’t walk and text; I don’t know how people try to drive and text,” Hallstrom said. “Hopefully people will use good judgment, but in the meantime traffic enforcement will be busy.”