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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Our View: Phone use when driving should be primary offense

Two things have become clear since Washington state lawmakers passed a law banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving:

1. Many drivers are still unaware of the law.

2. Many drivers are unconcerned about being ticketed because it is a secondary offense, meaning officers cannot issue tickets unless the driver was pulled over for something else.

Even with the dangerous road conditions, many motorists can’t resist yakking on the phone.

The problem with the law is that its authors didn’t take the offense seriously enough to begin with. The whole concept of “secondary offenses” sets up laws to fail. Mandatory seat-belt laws traveled a 16-year journey from secondary to primary offense. In 1986, 36 percent of motorists complied. In 2002, when the infraction became a primary offense, 83 percent complied. Now, it’s 96.5 percent. The threat of a $124 ticket gets a driver’s attention.

We shouldn’t have to take the same plodding path of accumulated horror stories with cell phones. If it’s serious enough to make it a law, then it’s serious enough to make it enforceable. Of the six states that have banned handheld cell phone use, only Washington has made it a secondary offense.

Through Dec. 15, Washington State Patrol had issued 798 tickets for the offense, according to the News Tribune of Tacoma. The troopers’ counterparts in California, which also started a ban in July, have handed out about 48,000 tickets. Other California law enforcement agencies have written thousands more. In Spokane County, 582 citations have been filed with municipal and district courts in 2008, records show. The odds are low that anyone will be punished.

The WSP’s Sgt. Freddy Williams has taken on the issue informally, and he told the Seattle Times that the law is being routinely flouted. He estimates that one-third of drivers are talking while driving.

“I’ve seen people walk out of their house and before they put their car in gear, they’re talking on the cell phone,” he said.

There’s plenty of that behavior locally, too, and it is dangerous.

Studies show that driving while holding a phone conversation is as perilous as drunken driving. Any distraction is dangerous, such as fiddling with controls, changing CDs and eating french fries, but it’s the sustained and involved nature of phone conversations that raises the risk level. In short, the brain is elsewhere, which slows reaction times.

Between 2001 and 2007, there were 3,229 traffic fatalities in Washington state. As with the seat-belt law, more lives would be saved and injuries avoided if motorists felt they were genuinely at risk of getting hit with a ticket for talking on their cell phones. The Legislature needs to revisit the law and make it a primary offense.