OLYMPIA — The Washington state Senate has taken action against distracted drivers, passing a measure Friday that makes it easier for police to ticket people who are driving while either texting or talking on a cell phone without a headset.
On a 33-15 vote Friday, the Senate passed 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. That strengthens the state’s current secondary offense law, which only slaps drivers with an extra fine if they are pulled over for another infraction, such as speeding.
“It’s becoming an epidemic, people are not paying attention, and it’s extremely serious,” said Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, and sponsor of the bill.
Under the bill, police could immediately pull over someone for texting or talking without a headset and give them a $124 ticket.
A ticket will not become part of a driver’s record and dialing a phone is not considered text messaging. The measure exempts transit and emergency vehicle personnel, as well as anyone who is text messaging or calling and not using 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.
Some expressed concern about this becoming a priority for police.
“I just have to ask whether the most important thing for law enforcement to do right now is to be out looking to see if people are using their cell phones incorrectly,” said Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley, who voted against the bill.
The bill passed Friday also outlaws any cell phone use by a driver with a learner’s permit or an intermediate license, which is given to drivers under 18 years old.
The measure now heads to the House for further consideration.
Washington is one of six states and the District of Columbia that have passed laws regulating cell phone use by drivers, but is the only one that that considers the use of a phone without a handsfree device a secondary offense, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Oregon all make it a primary offense. Parts of Hawaii have passed bans as well. Oregon’s ban on driving while using hand-held phones went into effect last month.
Oregon State Police say they issued 41 tickets and 250 warnings last month to drivers who improperly used cell phones. The penalty is $142, but there are exceptions for professional drivers and those who use their vehicles as a mobile office.
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