A poorly written, difficult-to-enforce state law means few traffic citations to discourage a dangerous practice. On average, fewer than two drivers a week in Seattle were cited in 2014.
Texting while driving. You see it all the time.
It’s annoying and it’s very dangerous — but you’ll almost certainly never get busted for doing it.
In an average week, fewer than two drivers in Seattle get cited for the offense. Analysis of Seattle Municipal Court records shows that in 2014, Seattle police issued a total of just 101 tickets for texting while driving.
At this point, everyone knows how reckless it is to text behind the wheel, comparable to driving with a blood-alcohol level at twice the legal limit, according to the Washington Department of Licensing. But in Seattle, you’re more likely to get pulled over for a defective taillight — or any number of far less hazardous offenses — than you are for texting.
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That’s partly because cops say it’s hard to spot, and partly because what’s illegal about it is so narrowly defined.
To be fair, this lack of enforcement is not unique to Seattle. A 2013 USA Today study found that texting laws are barely enforced anywhere. The most obvious reason: Drivers tend to text below the line of sight of police officers, so it’s harder to catch someone doing it.
Though it can be done. Take Officer Louie Olivarez. He holds the distinction of having written far more tickets to texting drivers than any other SPD cop, according to analysis of Seattle Municipal Court records. He nabbed 66 drivers for the violation between 2010 and June 2015.
It wasn’t just a matter of luck. “I intentionally looked for it,” he tells me.
Olivarez, who retired from the force last month, acknowledges the difficulties of enforcing the law. But he felt it was such an important safety issue that he made the extra effort.
The first thing, he says, is to find a strategic spot — the 2200 block of First Avenue South is a good one. He had to have a good vantage point to spot a driver texting, and it also had to be a place where he could safely pull out into traffic on his motorcycle to pull over the offender.
“It’s the driving behavior … they’re traveling too slow, with their eyes not on the road, or weaving between lanes,” Olivarez explains. “So the initial stop would be for inattention, and then you confront them about the texting. Most people will admit to it.”
And that’s the problem: The driver basically has to admit to it. Our law — written in 2007, when the use of smartphones was in its infancy — covers only texting, nothing else that you can do on a phone. Surfing the Web, Facebook messaging, responding to an email or reading The Seattle Times online while driving all remain legal. An attempt to broaden the law failed earlier this year.
(A separate law does ban holding a cellphone to your ear while driving. Both that and texting became “primary” offenses in 2010, meaning police could pull you over for either of those violations alone.)
Believe it or not, there’s another layer of difficulty in enforcing the texting law as it’s written. According to Lt. Mark Kuehn of the Seattle Police Department, “Someone stopped at a traffic signal is free to text away.” That’s because Washington’s law specifically bans texting by a person operating a moving vehicle. (State law, however, is more strict on commercial drivers, who are forbidden from even holding a phone while on the road.)
Kuehn’s interpretation of the law is correct — I confirmed this with the office of Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes. So a cop has to catch a texter whose foot is on the gas pedal, not the brake. Sitting at a traffic light? Type away. Stuck in stop-and-go traffic? Time to text with friends.
I asked former Washington state Rep. Joyce McDonald, who was sponsor of the 2007 legislation, about this aspect of the law. She sounded taken aback: “That’s the first time I’ve heard that in all these years,” she told me. “That was not the intent of the legislation.” She said the bill was written to allow a driver to find a safe place to pull over and text from the side of the road — not at stop lights. “In my opinion, that should be corrected. That’s really kind of dangerous.”
McDonald recently announced she is running for a House seat again, and if elected, says one of the first things she’d want to do is tighten up that loophole.
But as it stands now, the police are hamstrung by a poorly written law that’s also extremely difficult to enforce. “Honestly, a lot of officers don’t bother with it,” Louie Olivarez says.