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Wednesday, October 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Coming soon: Hold the phone, get a ticket

The following is from the Yakima Herald-Republic.

Washington state’s tougher distracted driving law will go into effect sooner than the Legislature intended, after a tweak by Gov. Jay Inslee. While Inslee’s move properly accelerates the timeline for the law, it does put pressure on the state to get the word out, and motorists who sometimes have trouble focusing on the road will need to focus on a new reality.

State law soon will catch up with technology with a measure that Inslee signed last week. The bill, a reaction to a spike in motor vehicle accidents in the state, will prohibit holding an electronic device while driving, even if the motorist is stopped at a red light. The new law applies to phones, tablets, laptops, gaming devices or other gadgets; this is aimed at stopping activities such as checking sites like Facebook, reading emails or (gasp) streaming videos to watch while driving. The measure tightens existing state law, which makes it illegal to text or hold a phone to one’s ear.

The law will take effect sooner than intended after Inslee vetoed a section that would have the measure take effect in 2019; instead, the new law will be in place on July 23, just two months from now. Safety officials who had planned an educational campaign in the run-up to implementation in 2019 are looking at ways to get the word out quickly. One possible approach, according to the Seattle Times, is to develop informational cards that police can hand out to drivers. Law enforcement may need to be judicious on enforcement until drivers get up to speed.

There is plenty of data to back up the need for this tougher approach. In February, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission released an observational survey of more than 22,000 vehicle drivers in 23 counties around the state; it found almost 1 in 10 drivers were distracted at the wheel. Meanwhile, fatalities from distracted driving jumped by 32 percent from 2014 to 2015 in Washington.

As of the effective date, the standard traffic fine of $136 will apply to a first offense but will increase to about $235 for a second offense. Another key element of the law is the first distracted driving offense will be reportable to insurance companies, which could raise rates just like any other moving violation. There are exemptions; among them are using an electronic device to contact emergency services, or operating a two-way or citizens band radio.

Another section should address concerns by some legislators that distractions stretch past the electronic. It includes language that a driver who engages in “any activity not related to the actual operation of a motor vehicle” is subject to an additional $100 fine. For example, you could get socked with a fine if an officer catches you running a stop sign after you spilled your breakfast burrito into your lap. The same applies if you swerve into another lane after a rambunctious dog jumps into the front seat.

The new measure is a common-sense step that promises to make the state’s roads and highways safer – once motorists understand that the state is serious.

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