Versions of Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act, which calls for a $245 fine for motorists using a handheld device, have passed the House and Senate.
Both chambers of the state Legislature have passed versions of a distracted-driving bill, making it likely that motorists will be banned from using handheld devices in 2018.
Emerging scientific research indicates texting can impair a driver’s reaction time similar to drinking double the legal limit of alcohol, backers stressed.
“Distracted driving is an epidemic on our roadways,” said Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, the chief sponsor in the House. “We love our phones; we can’t put down our phones,” she said in floor debate. Farrell thanked people who testified about family members lost in crashes.
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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.
Skeptics said the state should focus on actual driving offenses and define distraction more broadly. They’ve also worried the bill will encourage future government intrusion.
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“Somebody having a cellphone in their hand, or using a cellphone, that has no other signs of endangering anybody, should not automatically be deemed to be guilty,” said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama.
The House version of the Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act passed Tuesday in a 52-45 vote, after the Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, passed 36-13 on Monday.
Distractions were blamed for 170 deaths in the state in 2015, almost one-third of the total 567 road fatalities.
Next, each chamber will consider the other’s version, before a combined bill goes to a final vote in two weeks.
“I’m pretty optimistic, because there’s proof both chambers have the votes to get the bill passed,” Farrell said.
The House version would increase the standard $124 fine to $245 on the second offense.
On the third offense, a distracted-driving ticket would be reported to insurance companies, to raise rates.
Drivers would be allowed “the minimal use of a finger to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the device,” such as a navigation app mounted on a dashboard cradle.
The bills propose fines for other kinds of distraction, such as eating, but only if someone is pulled over for another violation.
Two new angles appear in the House bill:
• Drivers stuck in a major delay — like a toppled propane tanker truck blocking I-5, or a sudden closure of Snoqualmie Pass — could make a handheld phone call.
• People occupying self-driving cars at “Level 3” would be exempt, but no sooner than 2021. Such a vehicle “can conduct all parts of the driving task and can monitor the driving environment,” but sometimes command the human to take control, says the new report Driverless Seattle, by the University of Washington’s Tech Policy Lab.
Both clauses are “placeholders” that brought a few votes aboard and need further crafting, Farrell said.
Illinois has banned all handheld devices, but the Chicago-based National Safety Council goes further to propose banning hands-free telephone conversations, which NSC says occupy too much brain space.
Texting while driving is already illegal in Washington state, but the law doesn’t address other smartphone uses. The current ban on cellphone talking applies only to a phone at the ear.