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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Distracted driving law headed for overdue update

It took three years to get the message, but state lawmakers appear on the verge of updating Washington’s distracted driving law.

The Senate and House have passed their bills, and the two chambers appear to have reached agreement. The governor is expected to sign the new law, which would carry a fine of $136 for manipulating an electronic device while driving. A second offense would incur a $235 penalty. If drivers are pulled over for another infraction while also using a phone or tablet, they could be cited for a second infraction of dangerously distracted driving.

In short, it won’t be worth it. In truth, it never was.

“It can wait. It really can,” says Lisa Thompson of texting, in a YouTube video put together in conjunction with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

Thompson’s son, Sam, died while texting behind the wheel on Sept. 12, 2014. The 20-year-old from Colfax was headed to Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston. He sent a text at 10:21 a.m. A call came into emergency dispatch at 10:22. With his head down, Sam veered into oncoming traffic and his car was struck head-on by a semi. He died instantly. One of the emergency medical technicians was Sam’s godfather.

If you ever need a reminder for why you should put down the phone, watch the video called “Sam’s Story.” Or travel down state Route 195 to mile marker 31. There’s a sign where the accident occurred, just six miles from the Thompsons’ home.

Sam’s parents visit schools to spread the “Just Drive” message, but they know education is only part of the solution. Lavera Wade, of Spokane Valley, traveled to Olympia to testify for a better law. She is Sam’s grandmother.

Drivers who manipulate their phones are four times more likely to be killed in a crash. The response times are similar to those of drunken drivers who are more than two times over the legal blood alcohol limit.

But what about other diversions, asked opponents, such as combing hair, eating and fiddling with radio dials? And for two years, lawmakers were distracted by this argument. But the research is clear: Handling the phone is far more engrossing and dangerous.

If opponents aren’t persuaded, they can always introduce bills against non-phone distractions, but that was never really the point. It’s like the seat belt argument all over again: freedom vs. collective safety. But the price of tragedy is rarely confined to a single individual.

Texting was already illegal when Sam Thompson died, but enforcing the law became a real problem with the advent of smartphones. Traffic cops have difficulty discerning or proving that a driver is texting vs. tweeting. The latter is legal – as is updating one’s Facebook page, responding to email, browsing the internet and myriad other manipulations that weren’t possible before smartphones.

Soon the law will be what it was meant to be all along: Put down the device unless you have an emergency. A quick tap to activate or deactivate an app, such as GPS, will also be allowed.

Other than that, just drive.