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Opinion >  Editorial

Distracted driving law needs an update

Distracted-driving bills cruised past Friday’s legislative cut-off in Olympia. In a sane world, they would continue on to final passage, but they’ve been diverted twice before.

This is the third year lawmakers have attempted to revise the 2007 law. Currently, drivers are only prohibited from texting and talking on a hand-held phone. But as any owner of a smartphone knows, there is much more you can do with those devices, such as updating Facebook or Instagram, tweeting, watching a video and playing games. Drivers can even read this editorial.

Smartphones burst onto the scene shortly after the 2007 law was adopted, rendering it nearly impossible to enforce. Imagine you’re a police officer peering into a car. Is the driver tweeting or texting?

Common sense says he shouldn’t be holding the phone at all. So if you’re wondering why people aren’t being pulled over as they poke at them, it’s because the Legislature has failed to update the law.

The consequences are tragic. At a hearing held by the House Transportation Committee, Lavera Wade testified about the death of her 20-year-old grandson, who died in Highway 195 in the Palouse.

“I am here in memory of my grandson Sam Thompson, who on Sept. 12, 2014, chose to answer a text from his girlfriend, drifted across the center line in oncoming traffic, had a head-on and died when he hit a semi. He never saw the semi, his head was still down,” she said, according to a Seattle Times article.

An Arlington woman recounted the death of her son, a highway flagger at a construction site. He was struck by driver who was on a cellphone.

Trauma center workers, insurance companies, high school students, state patrol officers and the American Automobile Association also testified. The Washington Safety Commission has noted that reaction times of cellphone users are comparable to drivers with a blood alcohol level of 0.19 percent. The legal limit is 0.08 percent.

Drivers looking down at their phones also slow traffic, which is especially annoying during heavy commuter hours.

It’s true that drivers distract themselves in other ways, such as eating, fiddling with radio dials and fixing their hair, but phone use has proven to be more absorbing.

HB 1371 and SB 5298 would make it a crime to hold a phone and other electronic devices while driving, except in emergencies and other special circumstances. The current fine of $136 would be doubled. More importantly, an updated law would make for easier enforcement.

If the law were to pass, law enforcement must crack down with emphasis patrols, just as it does with drunken driving and seat belts. Currently, drivers are used to getting away with holding their phones.

But once the word about big fines spread, drivers would learn to pay attention. And the roads would be safer for everyone.

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

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