Law enforcement officers in King County will spend extra time looking for distracted drivers for the next two weeks, in hopes of halting a rise in cellphone use, safety officials say.

The emphasis patrol, which started this week, follows studies in 2020 that found 9.4% of the statewide drivers observed by researchers were holding a phone, compared to 6.8% in 2019, says a Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC) study.

Researchers blame decreased enforcement for a rise in cellphone use from 6.3% to 11.7% on city streets, while the rate for highways stayed at 4.2%.

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Erika Mascorro, WTSC distracted-driving program manager, said she doesn’t consider 2020 or 2021 typical, so it’s too soon to judge whether the state’s Driving Under the Influence of Electronics law, passed in 2017, is working.

Statewide distraction citations declined from about 37,000 in 2019 to 20,000 in 2020. The study blames reduced enforcement, resulting from COVID-19 safety protocols, along with social unrest and frayed community-police relations.

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A federal grant provides $55,000 for education and $40,000 overtime pay for extra patrols by 27 police departments. At typical officer wages, that’s just over 400 hours spread across a county where drivers travel 48 million miles per day.

What’s more interesting may be the enforcement methods. Police agencies will often work in trios, where one officer spots a violation and two others pull the driver over down the road.

Motorcycle police in Bellevue will provide about 40 hours of grant-funded patrols at overtime rates near $90 per hour, said department spokesperson Meeghan Black. 

“They enthusiastically volunteer for this assignment,” Black said. A Bellevue officer on Monday cited seven drivers for cellphone use in two hours, and it’s possible for a motorcycle cop to issue as many as 10 citations per hour, she said.

Mascorro said the state is moving away from fear-based publicity about crashes. New messaging, in many languages, will promote community safety and debunk the notion that “everybody does it,” she said.

Washington state law forbids holding a cellphone in traffic, except emergency calls, or a momentary touch, such as to turn on navigation apps. Phones may be mounted on dashboards but texting and video-watching are banned.

Violations carry a $136 fine for the first offense and $234 for a second ticket within five years. Other distractions, such as eating, can trigger a secondary $99 fine if someone is pulled over for some other offense.

At least 23% of serious crashes are blamed on distraction, state data shows.