Washington’s Legislature should update its laws regarding cellphone use while driving. It should also be sure that police have resources to enforce the laws.
A proposal to update Washington laws on cellphone usage while driving is a smart move as technology has advanced since the laws began in 2008.
The Legislature should make this straightforward fix and support increased enforcement to provide the desired increase in safety.
Current law prohibits drivers from holding a phone to the ear or text-messaging, but allows “hands free” phone use.
This complicates enforcement, because drivers can avoid tickets by telling police they weren’t texting, only initiating a hands-free call.
State Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, and Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, are proposing to broaden the law to more broadly restrict cellphone usage, so police wouldn’t have to deduce which application drivers were using.
Legislating and enforcing these rules will continue to be a challenge, though. Until drivers are banned outright from using phones — or phone companies disable the devices while their owners are driving — there will still be loopholes and distractions.
For instance, the updated bill would continue allowing drivers to use phones in cradles on the dashboard, even though they can distract and obscure drivers’ vision.
The proposal acknowledges that “hands-free” is an unattainable standard if calling is still allowed. It would allow use of one finger to activate a device.
Drivers use fingers for all sorts of controls, such as the radio, Farrell notes. But the law won’t prevent a one-finger peck from becoming a distracting search for a phone number. Ultimately we depend on drivers’ judgment for safety.
Still, it’s worthwhile to make the law more expansive and easier to enforce. It should also better reflect the increasing capability of voice-controlled devices and vehicles that incorporate phones into their dashboard systems.
The proposal calls for increasing first-time penalties from $124 to $250.
Lawmakers should simultaneously ensure they are providing adequate resources for police to enforce distracted-driving laws.
Underfunding of the State Patrol has forced the agency to prioritize. Troopers are too busy responding to emergencies to spend a lot of time enforcing laws such as cellphone violations, according to Patrol Sergeant James Prouty.
Previous updates to the cellphone law helped, even without penalty increases.
A 2010 update made texting and handheld calling while driving primary offenses, enabling police to pull people over just for that violation. Penalties remained $124.
After that update, citations for these violations more than doubled, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
The number of fatal and serious-injury accidents involving distracted drivers declined as enforcement increased. Such accidents fell by nearly a third from 2009 to 2012, as citations nearly tripled.
Citations grew to around 40,000 a year, then declined after 2012. Last year just 23,829 were issued. Prouty said that may reflect fewer resources for enforcement.
Since enforcement declined, serious accidents involving distracted drivers increased, though so has overall driving.
Washington clearly needs a combination of currently applicable safety laws and police with enough resources to thoroughly enforce them.