Can bicyclists be cited for driving under the influence of electronics? Is it OK to make a call when you’re waiting for an open drawbridge to close? We have the answers.

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More than a half-million readers have already looked at our stories this year about Washington state’s new distracted-driving law.

Yet the requests for clear information, and quibbles about new scenarios, keep rolling In.

To recap:

• Nonemergency use of a handheld electronic device is illegal while operating a motor vehicle, and can result in a $136 traffic ticket that goes on your insurance record. Devices must be mounted in a cradle or built-in, and require “minimal use of a finger” to open the app. Watching any video is illegal.

• Other distractions are a “secondary offense” and can add a $99 fine if an officer tickets you for some primary violation, such as speeding or drifting out of your lane. These distractions are undefined but examples including applying makeup or shaving, holding a pet, or fumbling with a sandwich.

Such distractions only become a ticket if they lead to dangerous driving. So, if you’re pulled over for expired tabs or a busted taillight, you would not get a ticket for eating a sandwich while driving. If, on the other hand, you’re pulled over for swerving erratically or speeding the officer can give you a ticket for eating a sandwich, if that helped lead to the dangerous driving.

• In a state that runs on caffeine, it’s still legal to drink coffee — or other nonalcoholic drinks — and drive. That wouldn’t lead to a citation unless someone fumbles or spills the cup in a way that causes a traffic violation.

With that in mind, here a few more questions and answers:

Q. Can bicyclists be ticketed for electronic distractions?

A. The law doesn’t apply to bicycles or electric bikes.

It specifically pertains to “motor vehicles,” defined as any machine, tractor, trailer or semitrailer “propelled or drawn by mechanical power” or required to be registered with the state. (Bikes aren’t state registered.)

“Motor vehicles” are quite different from just “vehicles,” which state law defines to include bicycles, says John Duggan, a Seattle attorney who specializes in bike-related cases.

“If they wanted it to include bikes, they would have used ‘vehicle,’ ” he said of the 2017 Legislature. He also emphasized that a texting bicyclist isn’t the lethal object a 2,000-pound car is.

“If someone gets that ticket, they should fight it,” Duggan said.

State Patrol spokesman Kyle Moore also said Monday bikes are excluded, based on the “motor vehicle” definition.

Some confusion is understandable, since another chapter of state law (and traffic folklore) says bicyclists on a street generally have the same rights and duties “as the driver of a vehicle.” For instance, cyclists in Seattle have been occasionally ticketed for speeding or red-light running.

Shelly Baldwin, legislative liaison for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, said for a previous version of this story she believed bicyclists were subject to the distraction law, but reversed her remarks a few days later.

Duggan agrees the laws aren’t always clearly written, and emphasizes, “Just because a law says you can do this, doesn’t mean you should.”

Q. What if I call my family while waiting for an open drawbridge to close?

A. The law defines “driving” to include being “temporarily stationary,” including at traffic signals. It doesn’t say what “temporary” means.

Baldwin believes the law applies at drawbridges. “There are no exemptions for bridges and railroad crossings,” she said. But she also said, ‘I think it’s a ridiculous scenario.” Police likely wouldn’t see you in a cluster of stopped cars.

Common sense also pertains. Are you stopped by a freight train blocking a port road for 25 minutes, or by gates on Holgate Street that are down half a minute for a Sounder train?

Q. Why isn’t driving with a dog on your lap illegal?

A. A dog would qualify as a “secondary” distraction, for an extra $99 fine, if police see some other driving offense. Bill sponsors former Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, and Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, didn’t try to list specific secondary distractions, because that would have opened up endless debate and their bill aimed at electronics distraction would have never passed.

Q. If the phone is between your thighs, does that count as “handheld?”

A. The bill says the device can’t be held in one or both hands. Baldwin said a phone between the legs “would be illegal.” If so, officers would still need to see the device, or perhaps the glow of the device, to establish probable cause to pull someone over.

Q. Will this distraction law lead to racial profiling?

A. To be sure, it relies heavily on an officer’s observation and judgment, whereas speeding tickets often begin with a radar or laser data reading.

Washington State University has studied race and traffic stops occasionally, and Seattle University School of Law has examined the findings.

So it should be possible to check for any racial disparities in the new law.

Several years ago, WSU has found no evidence of systemic bias in how the State Patrol issues citations, but a Seattle University report mentions disparities in vehicle searches.

Q. People with DUI convictions can be denied entry into Canada. Does the phrase DUI-E mean people with distracted driving tickets will be turned away too?

A. No. Despite the nickname, this is still a basic traffic infraction, and not legally the same as a drunken driving conviction, Baldwin said.

Q. Can you talk on your cellphone if it’s tucked into a hat or a headband?

A. If it distracts you to the point of driving dangerously, then no.

“The bill does not address whether you can Jerry-rig the phone with a headband to your ear,” said Capt. Monica Alexander of the Washington State Patrol. “The officer will look at the totality of the situation. As your safety expert I would say don’t do that, just don’t.”


















Information in this article, originally published July 29, 2017, was corrected July 31, 2017. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the new distracted-driving law applies to bicyclists. In fact, the law does not apply to people on bicycles.