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Wed., Sept. 11, 2013

Editorial: Crackdown needed on distracted driving

Though Washington state has been a national leader in passing laws to curb cellphone use, plenty of drivers are still twiddling their thumbs, according to a University of Washington study released this week. The cellphone has great allure, and some people just can’t wait to put the car in park before responding to a text or Facebook post.

LOL? Quite the opposite.

All distracted driving is bad, but studies have shown that cellphone use is particularly dangerous. The brain disengages from the task of driving as it concentrates on communicating, making it riskier than changing music or eating. It’s also more dangerous than talking to people in the car. Texting is worse than talking, but UW researchers found that’s what nearly half of distracted drivers were doing. Studies show that texting is akin to driving with a blood-alcohol reading of 0.19 percent, more than twice the legal limit.

UW researchers observed 7,800 drivers in six counties, including Spokane County. Randomized observations at controlled intersections found that 8.1 percent of drivers – about 630 – were handling an electronic device, with cellphones being the most popular.

It’s not surprising that people talk or text while driving. We see it all the time. But it is surprising how indifferent drivers are to the risks.

Last spring, the Washington State Patrol ran a “Click It or Ticket” campaign in which troopers increased enforcement of seat belt and cellphone laws. From May 20 through June 2, 1,448 drivers in the state were cited for illegal use of phones. But it’s apparent that many more drivers are culpable, and the threat of a $101 ticket isn’t dissuading them.

A stunning 48 percent of drivers say they will answer a phone call or text, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Nearly one-fourth of drivers report placing calls.

Law enforcement officials say enforcing the law can be difficult because drivers lower the phones when they see a patrol car. But the UW study found that half of the cellphone users kept the device near the steering wheel and in view of observers.

Perhaps some emphasis patrols with unmarked cars are in order, along with more prominent public education campaigns.

If drivers aren’t aware of the dangers, Beth Ebel, a trauma doctor at Harborview Medical Center and the director of the UW study, can fill them in.

“I see folks at Harborview every day who don’t need to be there,” she told the Seattle Times.

We need to get distracted driving under control soon because auto manufacturers plan to install an array of dashboard gadgets to draw the interest of young consumers – who are more enamored with technology than cars – and busy people who want to multitask while behind the wheel.

A crash course on why this is a bad idea is in order, but first we need to get drivers’ attention.

Until the UW study, officials didn’t have solid figures on how rampant cellphone use is. Now that they know, it’s time to crack down.

To respond to this editorial online, go to and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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