The state’s restrictions on the use of cellphones while driving turns a year old Friday, and the Washington State Patrol is strongly enforcing the law, issuing five times more tickets than before it became a primary offense.
In numbers released Tuesday, the Patrol said 6,850 drivers had been cited statewide in the year since the law took effect — a huge increase from the 1,344 citations issued in the previous year.
As a primary offense, drivers now can be pulled over merely for holding a cellphone to their ear or texting. An infraction carries a $124 fine. The citation does not go on one’s driving record.
Between mid-June 2009 and mid-June 2010, before the law changed and while the violation was still a secondary offense — meaning an officer needed another reason to stop the driver — the State Patrol pulled over 4,500 drivers for using their cellphones and cited 30 percent of them.
But in the past year, the Patrol pulled over 14,518 drivers and cited 47 percent of them.
Julie Startup, a State Patrol officer in King County, said she cites almost everybody she pulls over for a cellphone violation, but said enforcement varies by troopers.
Startup said she’s seen fewer drivers talking on cellphones or texting on the freeways, but said she sees more people violating the law when she gets off the freeway. That may be because speeds are slower and drivers believe there is so much congestion they can get away with it.
“People feel safer off the interstate,” Startup said.
Sometimes, when she stops a vehicle, illegal cellphone use is just one of many violations. She said she may cite the driver for the other violations and issue a warning for the cellphone violation.
The State Patrol’s official policy on issuing cellphone citations is to leave it up to the trooper, spokesman Bob Calkins says.
“There are 1,100 troopers out there, and there could be 1,100 rationales,” he said.
As far as cellphone use causing accidents, the numbers aren’t large and might not tell the complete story, he said. Statistics for 2008, the most recent year available, show 13 serious injury accidents were caused by drivers on their cellphones.
“A lot of freeway fender-benders tie up traffic because someone is playing with their cellphone,” Calkins said. “We think that number is grossly underreported. People won’t admit talking on the phone when they had the wreck.”