OLYMPIA – Washington drivers will soon find themselves driving safer or else – facing prison sooner for driving drunk and fines for tweeting or watching videos on their smartphones.
As the families who lost loved ones to drivers who were drunk or distracted by cellphones looked on, Gov. Jay Inslee signed bills designed to cut down on fatal and serious accidents that have been rising in recent years after a decade of decline.
“Put the cellphone down,” Inslee advised as he signed a bill making it a ticketable traffic offense to do just about anything while driving and holding a mobile phone – talk, text, go on social media or the internet. A driver can use one finger to activate, deactivate or sign off; anything else will be a $135 ticket the first time, up to $235 the second time.
“We love our cellphones, they have changed our lives,” he said. “But they have taken lives.”
Lavera Wade, a Spokane Valley woman, lost her grandson Sam Thompson in a head-on collision after he looked down to send a text and drifted over the centerline on state Route 195 near Colfax. She thanked Inslee and legislators who stuck with the three-year push to pass the bill, as well as a handful of former opponents who this year “had the courage to change their minds” and pass the bill.
Thompson and other victims now have a chance “to live on in the lives of those who will not be lost” to those accidents, Wade said.
The state has required hands-free devices for drivers to talk on a cellphone and banned texting for years. But smartphone technology has allowed drivers to do many more things that weren’t mentioned in the original statute and law enforcement officers couldn’t be sure a driver with phone in hand was doing something illegal.
“This makes it so law enforcement can do their jobs,” said Tina Meyer, whose son Cody was working on a road construction crew when he was struck by a driver looking at a cellphone. Cody eventually died of his injuries.
Tina Meyer came to the bill signing in bright yellow, the same color her son was wearing in the marked construction zone. While she was happy the law passed, she noted in the three years lawmakers debated the bill, distracted driving contributed to more deaths.
As passed, the bill gave drivers until the beginning of 2019 before tickets would be issued under the new distracted driving law. But Inslee vetoed that section, making the law effective this summer.
“Awesome,” said Wade, adding legislators shouldn’t have put such a long delay on a necessary change in the law.
The longer lead time for the law to take effect was part of the negotiations that helped the law pass. Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said he was surprised by Inslee’s veto but “I doubt there are the votes to override.”
Another law that took several years and multiple tries to clear the Legislature was one that makes a driver’s fourth driving-under-the-influence charge in 10 years a felony. That moves it up from the current law, which holds off a felony until the fifth DUI.
Persistence by Padden and other supporters paid off this year when the bill passed the Senate unanimously and with a bipartisan 85-11 vote in the House. Padden had argued for years that Washington was far outside the norm, and no other state that makes DUI a felony waits until the fifth offense. Idaho and Oregon both can charge felonies on the third offense.
After a decade of decline in traffic deaths, Washington saw a jump in traffic deaths in 2015, Washington State Patrol Assistant Chief Jeff Sass said. There were some 13,000 accidents from impaired driving that year, and accidents connected to distracted driving were up 30 percent over 2014.
Inslee, who was once a prosecutor in Yakima, said he was glad to see the felony charge available for a fourth DUI charge. Driving under the influence was “socially acceptable” for so long, but it can lead to a situation that’s just as serious as manslaughter or assault with intent to do serious harm, he said.