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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Lawmakers should put traffic safety in fast lane

Bad news for unsafe drivers.

It’s National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and Idaho and Washington law enforcement agencies are in the midst of emphasis patrols.

Legislators in both states could assist this effort by updating laws on cellphone use. Idaho badly needs to update its seat belt law.

In Washington, drivers engaged in a cellphone call or texting can be fined $124 under state law. Hands-free calls are legal. In Idaho, drivers can be fined $81.50 for texting. These are primary offenses, meaning drivers can be pulled over for them. There are other distracted driving fines, but those are secondary offenses, meaning drivers have to commit some other offense first.

In Idaho, it’s still legal to steer a car, hold a phone and engage in conversation. Idaho’s seat belt law is still a secondary offense, and the fine is 10 bucks. Lawmakers should spend a night with a trauma unit.

In Washington, failure to buckle up results in a $124 fine, and it’s a primary offense. Guess which state has the higher compliance rate?

As traffic safety experts know – and legislators have been told – primary offenses greatly increase compliance. In 1986, when a seat belt violation was a secondary offense in Washington, the compliance rate was 36 percent. Now, compliance is more than 95 percent.

It’s not surprising that half of distracted drivers in Idaho involved in accidents were not wearing seat belts. Unbuckled drivers greatly increase their chances of severe injury or death for themselves and their passengers, but Idaho lawmakers are unmoved.

While Washington has much better traffic safety laws, they could be improved. The state was a national leader when it passed its texting and phone-call ban in 2007. But the advent of smartphone technology has passed it by. We need an update – a version 2.0.

The law explicitly bans texting and hand-held phone calls, but not tweeting, Facebook posting and other smartphone manipulations. Those activities are just as dangerous, but the Legislature has rebuffed multiple attempts to add them to the law. This makes enforcement more difficult.

A simple fix would be to prohibit drivers from holding a cellphone for any reason, except in emergencies. The Washington Traffic Safety Commission advocates such a change.

Opponents revert to the same arguments leveled against the 2007 law. Distractions are distractions, why single out phones? Because research plainly shows that cellphone use is a significantly more dangerous distraction. The reaction times of phone users are comparable to those of drunken drivers. It’s not the same as fiddling with radio dials or munching on snacks.

The current emphasis patrols are a good idea because they drive home a safe-driving message. But the safety laws themselves should be further down the road.

To respond to this editorial online, go to and click on “Opinion.”

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