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Mobile phone law gets tougher

Drivers may now be pulled over for most calls, texting

OLYMPIA – Starting this summer, drivers better use a headset if they’re talking on their cell phones. And don’t even think about texting your friend while cruising down the interstate.

Gov. Chris Gregoire on Friday signed into law a bill that makes it a primary offense to be caught holding a cell phone to your ear while driving, or to be reading, writing or sending text messages.

“This is a public safety issue,” Gregoire said just before signing the bill.

The new law upgrades the state’s law for both, which had only slapped drivers with an extra fine if they were pulled over for another infraction, such as speeding.

Last year, under current law, more than 1,607 people received tickets for using a cell phone without a headset, said state patrol Sgt. Freddy Williams. More than 230 people were ticketed for texting while driving.

Starting on June 10, police can immediately pull over someone for texting or talking without a headset and give them a $124 ticket.

Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste said the state would work to educate drivers in the coming months about the impending law, and he said that his officers would probably just give warnings to early lawbreakers before moving to full enforcement.

Batiste said that while he’d prefer drivers not talk on the phone at all, the new law is a step in the right direction.

A ticket won’t become part of a driver’s record and dialing a phone is not considered text messaging. The new law exempts transit and emergency vehicle personnel, as well as anyone who is text messaging or calling without a headset to report illegal activity or summon emergency help. People who are using a hearing aid or operating a tow truck are also exempt.

It also outlaws any cell phone use – even with a headset – by a driver with a learner’s permit or an intermediate license, which is given to drivers under 18 years old.

Washington joins a handful of states – including California, New Jersey and Oregon – in making texting and talking without a headset a primary offense, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. More than a dozen states have passed laws regulating cell phone use by drivers.

Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way and sponsor of the measure, said that the public has had enough of distracted drivers.

“They want people to get into their cars from point A to point B, and get there safely,” she said.

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