Safety specialists and families of crash victims give passionate testimony in favor of banning handheld-device use by motorists.

Share story

OLYMPIA — Lawmakers paid full attention Thursday when the families of four distracted-driving victims shared their stories and asked for a crackdown.

“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 centerline in oncoming traffic, had a head-on and died when he hit a semi. He never saw the semi, his head was still down,” testified his grandmother, Lavera Wade, to the House Transportation Committee. The 20-year-old grandson crashed on Highway 195 in the Palouse.

“How many more deaths will it take,” Wade said, “before the Legislature will change the existing laws and give our state law enforcement the needed laws to stem the growing epidemic of distracted driving?”

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Learn more about Traffic Lab »

House Bill 1371, filed by Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, would ban use of any handheld device including phones, tablets and games, as well as watching a video while driving.

The standard fine of $124 would double for a second offense, and violations would be reported to insurance companies. Drivers would be allowed “minimal use of a finger” to activate software, like a dash-mounted GPS map.

There are exemptions for emergency calls, for transit and cabdrivers contacting a dispatch center, and for commercial drivers permitted under federal law. Amateur “ham” radio operators seek an exemption.

It now is illegal to use a cellphone at the ear, or to text while driving. That doesn’t forbid holding a phone below the mouth, using Facebook, watching a video, or taking selfies.

Representatives of AAA, Harborview Medical Center, the Washington State Patrol, paving company Lakeside Industries, Washington DECA high-school students, and the insurance industry testified in support.

Tina Meyer, of Arlington, spoke about her son, Cody Meyer, flagging traffic near Issaquah when he was hit in December 2015 by a driver using his cellphone. She recalled signing a “do not resuscitate” order three or four times during his 151 days getting medical treatment before he died of heart failure.

“I don’t get to kiss him any more … If you haven’t ever had to put a DNR on a loved one, I hope you never have to do it,” she said.

Scientific studies suggest that texting — which requires eyes, fingers and brain attention — impairs reaction time similar to a 0.19 blood alcohol content, said Shelly Baldwin of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. The state’s legal limit is 0.08.

The Senate version, sponsored by Ann Rivers, R-La Center, was heard in committee Tuesday. Both are headed next week to closed-door “executive sessions” where the real debate and tinkering happens.

A philosophical rift exists among legislators about targeting technology instead of erratic behavior.

“Where does it go from here?” Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, who is a Snohomish County sheriff’s sergeant, said after the hearing.

He filed a bill defining distraction more broadly to include eating, grooming or adjusting a music player. Many violations would be secondary offenses, with extra fines, after an officer sees some other traffic violation.

“I know what causes collisions, generally speaking, and I know how to investigate them,” he said in the hearing. “Frankly, I think it’s due to lack of enforcement. We don’t have enough troopers on the road, enough resources for education and enforcement.”