In 2007, Washington became the first state to ban texting while driving, but that law didn’t say anything about Twitter, Facebook or iTunes.
Cellphones just weren’t used that way a decade ago, and in the following years the law lagged behind technology. State lawmakers just took a big step to change that with a new law signed earlier this week by Gov. Jay Inslee that bans holding a phone or other electronic device while driving.
“Before, someone could be playing ‘Pokemon Go,’ and the law didn’t cover that,” Washington State Patrol spokesman Kyle Moore said. “We’d pull them over, but then the person would say ‘I was using it to change music,’ or something like that. And that wouldn’t be an offense.”
Meanwhile distracted driving deaths, on the rise nationwide, have spiked in Washington state. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data 3,477 people nationwide died in distracted-driving crashes in 2015. That included 171 such deaths in Washington, according to the state Traffic Safety Commission. That’s a jump from 130 in 2014, and it represented 30 percent of all 2015 fatal collisions in the state.
Yakima State Patrol spokesman Lt. Kiley Conaway wasn’t able to provide statistics on how frequently troopers around here pull people over for cellphone use.
“But it happens quite a bit,” he said.
And it’s always dangerous.
“They’re looking at their screen instead of looking at where they’re going,” Conaway said. “They can miss potential hazards.”
The new law, which takes effect in July, aims to combat such distracted driving by making any use of a phone, tablet or other device behind the wheel a ticketable offense. It will come with a $136 penalty for first offenders, just as the current texting or talking law does. And that penalty will jump to $235 for a second offense. Crucially, the bill also makes distracted driving first offenses reportable to insurance companies, meaning the practical penalties of increased rates could cost more than the ticket over the long run.
Despite the 2007 law, using a cellphone while behind the wheel remains common.
A Washington Traffic Safety Commission observational study released in January showed that 9.2 percent of drivers statewide were distracted, including 5.6 percent who were holding or manipulating phones.
The part of the study done in Yakima County showed that things were slightly better here, with 7.6 percent of the observed drivers distracted. But neighboring Kittitas County had the second-highest rate of distracted drivers of the 23 counties studied, with 20.1 percent of drivers distracted.
The State Patrol pulled over nearly 17,000 people for using handheld phones in 2016, Moore said, ticketing about half of them. But he realizes that thousands of others weren’t stopped. People tend to hide their phones when they see a State Patrol cruiser.
“The trooper has to see it,” he said. “That’s been a challenge with the old law, and it will be a challenge with the new law.”
But now at least when a trooper does see someone, they can ticket tweeting or Facebook posting just as they would have texting, Moore said.
“Times have changed,” he said. “Phones have become more ubiquitous and people are using them for everything now.”
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