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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Distracted-driving law needs major update

During the upcoming session in Olympia, lawmakers will try again to acknowledge that cellphone technology has zoomed past the 2007 ban on texting and talking while driving.

That decade-old law is equivalent to a flip phone.

Now drivers grab their smartphones and jump onto Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, Twitter and other apps that weren’t prevalent in 2007.

None of these acts is illegal. Only talking and texting are prohibited.

The law’s declaration reads: “It is the Legislature’s intent to phase out the use of hand-held wireless communications devices by motorists while operating a vehicle.”

The trend has gone in the other direction. Phone use is epidemic.

Now imagine you are a law enforcement officer trying to enforce the law. Is that phone-wielding driver texting or doing something else while poking at it? Only texting would be illegal, so that violation is practically impossible to enforce.

As a trooper told the Seattle Times in a recent article, he waits for the phone to go to the ear before pulling anyone over. But the trooper sees problems all the time, especially in stop-and-go traffic when drivers aren’t prepared to do either.

Sen. Ann Rivers, R-LaCenter, and Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, are taking another crack and cracking down on drivers distracted by their phones, according to the Times. Their bill is tentatively called Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act.

It’s aptly named. Distracted driving deaths increased 9 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to the National Safety Council. They went up 30 percent in the state, from 130 to 171.

The bill focuses on hand-held manipulations. “Don’t hold it in your hand. Don’t poke at it,” Farrell said. That would remove the guesswork for traffic officers.

A 2015 bill banning hand-held devices (except in emergencies) breezed through the Senate, but stalled in the House.

Opponents make the same arguments they made nearly a decade ago: Target distracted driving, not technology. If drivers aren’t driving erratically, then what’s the problem?

But the research is clear that using a phone is a much bigger distraction than changing radio stations or eating a banana.

The sensory overload of using a phone affects reaction times as much as driving drunk. A drunken person can be cited for merely putting the key in the ignition.

Many people wrongly believe they are capable of multitasking while driving, but they only need to be wrong once before they harm themselves, their passengers or others on or near the road.

Until the phone law carries consistent, significant consequences, it won’t be taken seriously. And it is currently difficult to enforce.

This update is long overdue.

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