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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Don’t even touch that cellphone, drivers … or else

If you are planning a weekend drive, hand your cellphone to a passenger.

An alarming increase in accidents and fatalities caused by distracted drivers finally convinced Washington lawmakers they could no longer look the other way. In April, they passed the Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act, or E-DUI, which takes effect Sunday.

A 2008 law – far-sighted for its time – did not fully anticipate the smartphone era, and all the apps that can turn an automobile into a virtual arcade, theater or office. Prohibitions against hands-on telephone use and texting only begin to cover the almost innumerable ways driver eyes and ears can be diverted from the road.

Distracted drivers are a deadly menace.

Statewide, serious crashes involving distracted drivers have increased from 311 in 2008 to 491 last year, an almost 60 percent jump. Fatalities are up 22 percent. The figures were compiled by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission from reports by all state and local law enforcement agencies.

In Spokane County, fatalities fell to five in 2016 – matching the 2008 number – after cresting in 2015 at 14. But serious injury crashes continued to rise, from 16 to 34 in 2016.

Enforcement agencies have done what they can to stop the carnage. In 2016, the Washington State Patrol stopped 13,524 motorists for hand-held cellphone use, and issued 6,377 citations. Another 3,369 motorists were stopped for texting. They received 1,564 citations.

Under the new law, drivers will no longer be able to avoid a ticket by claiming they were emailing, for example, not speaking or texting. Disproving the driver’s claim beyond a reasonable doubt might involve time-consuming measures like subpoenas for cellphone records.

As of Sunday, holding a phone for any reason except contacting emergency services will be barred, even when the vehicle is stopped at a light. Why, when stopped? An AAA foundation study found it takes 27 seconds after cellphone use for a driver to fully regain focus on the road.

A hands-free device can be touched or swiped just once. If using GPS, turn it on before leaving the driveway.

Fines start at $136, climbing to $234 if a second violation occurs within five years. Because the citations will be reported to insurers, drivers can expect a bump in premiums, too.

Grooming, eating, reading or smoking that interferes with driving will bring a $99 fine, but no report to insurers.

If the law seems like overkill, check out the videos at the Traffic Safety Commission website.

Education has helped level off accident and fatality numbers the last one or two years, but it’s obvious just by watching traffic that cellphones are parked in too many ears.

With E-DUI, law enforcement has an app for that.

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