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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Many drivers talked way to tickets in first year of cellphone ban

A driver headed west along Spokane Falls Blvd, chats on her cell phone, June 15, 2011 in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
A driver headed west along Spokane Falls Blvd, chats on her cell phone, June 15, 2011 in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A few try to hide it with their hands. Others may drop it in their lap to avoid detection. But some drivers don’t even bother – their cellphones stay clearly propped against their ear while they cruise down the road.

One year after driving while texting or talking with a cellphone to your ear became a reason for law enforcement in Washington state to stop you, the number of $124 tickets issued has increased, but police aren’t sure people are paying attention.

Teresa Fuller, spokeswoman for the Spokane Police Department’s traffic unit, said she hasn’t noticed a drop in the number of offenders.

“I see people every day who are driving with their cellphones to their ears,” Fuller said.

And while the purpose behind the ban was to help improve safety by reducing driver distractions, research shows no decline in the number of auto crashes. They’ve actually increased slightly, according to a study issued last fall by the Highway Loss Data Institute, which analyzed car crash statistics in four states that have banned texting while driving, including Washington.

A previous study on cellphone bans for drivers reached the same conclusion.

But at least drivers are aware what they’re doing is illegal, said Chris Tennant, commander of the Pullman Police Department.

Officers see the violations while patrolling, and they see it when motorists drop their phones as officers pass by.

“They know it’s illegal. I think that’s a good first step,” Tennant said. However, “trying to change behavior is a long process.”

Tennant praised the cellphone ban but said the texting law “is pretty much unenforceable.”

Since the ban went into effect on June 10, 2010, Pullman police have issued 89 cellphone tickets and 324 warnings, but just two tickets and two warnings for texting.

“Even though they sound very, very similar, it’s fairly easy to see a cellphone up to someone’s ear, but it’s fairly difficult to catch someone texting,” Tennant said. “And from a layman’s point of view, I think texting is almost more dangerous.”‘

Spokane police issued 709 tickets for cellphone use and texting since Jan. 1, Fuller said.

Fuller didn’t know exactly how many were for texting, but agreed that those tickets are issued less frequently. Infractions that often accompany texting, such as improper lane changes or turning without signaling, “are pretty easy to spot” and may have been issued instead, Fuller said.

But the Spokane Police Department has cut the number of officers dedicated to traffic patrol, which Fuller said makes it difficult to enforce the ban. Officers en route to a call for service or busy with another case may pass a motorist talking on their cellphone but not have time to stop, Fuller said.

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office reported similar statistics. Cellphone tickets have been issued 443 times since Jan. 1, but only five tickets have been issued for text messaging.

The numbers are similar across the state.

Between June 10, 2010, and May 15, the Washington State Patrol issued 27 tickets for texting in Eastern Washington and 374 for cellphone use. That’s an increase from 20 texting citations and 118 cellphone tickets for the same period the previous year, when law enforcement wasn’t allowed to stop motorists simply for improper cellphone use.

Statewide, the number of tickets increased fivefold since the violations became primary offenses. Troopers issued 6,850 citations for cellphones and 549 for text messages in the 11 months ending May 15. The previous period saw 1,344 cellphone citations and 224 texting citations.

Not every contact ends in a citation – troopers contacted about 14,500 drivers for suspected cellphone violations and 1,244 for texting.

“The Legislature gave us this law, and our troopers have made good use of it,” State Patrol Chief John R. Batiste said in a prepared statement. “We believe that distracted driving is a factor in far more collisions that we know about, and we are determined to address that.”

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