Saturday, January 16, 2010

Bill would make texting while driving a primary offense in Washington state

By Lillian Tucker
Seattle Times staff reporter

OLYMPIA — Sen. Tracey Eide has boxes full of studies that speak to the dangers of using cellphones while driving, with texting carrying the most risk.

"It's the equivalent of driving drunk," she said, referring to a study last year by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute that found when you send a text while driving, you've probably just taken your eyes off the road for up to 6 seconds and traveled the length of a football field.

The Federal Way Democrat has renewed her fight to further crack down on drivers who use handheld cellphones, promoting legislation that would allow officers to pull over a driver when they see it.

"It's a safety issue," said Eide. "I drive every day. My family drives every day."

The proposal has reopened a bipartisan debate: Is a new law targeted at cellphones needed to ensure public safety or do existing laws against distracted driving do the job?

Senate Bill 6345 would make holding a cellphone while driving a primary offense, reason enough for a police officer to stop a driver and, unless the phone is being used for an emergency, issue a $124 ticket.

Since July 2009, using a handheld device while driving has been a secondary offense, meaning police have to see another violation before making the traffic stop and writing the $124 ticket for holding a cellphone.

If the bill were to be enacted, Washington would join four other states and the District of Columbia in making it a primary offense.

The new law would be stricter on those who hold either a driver's permit or an intermediate license — even the use of a headset or speakerphone would not be allowed. In the state House, HB 2635 is a companion bill that aims to accomplish the same tightening of the law.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety claims that cellphone users are four times more likely to crash than non-distracted drivers, while the study by Virginia Tech found that texting while driving puts people at an even greater risk, over 20 times greater.

"People say that they can multitask, but they are actually dividing their attention," said Sgt. Freddy Williams of the State Patrol. "Driving is a full-time job. You need to be aware of what is going on in front of you, beside you and behind you."

Everyone seems to agree that distracted driving is dangerous, especially considering that, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 80 percent of crashes involve some form of driver inattention.

But not everyone agrees that cellphones should be the scapegoat for other diversions such as tending to children, searching for cigarettes or even events happening outside the car.

"There is nothing more distracting about holding a phone to your ear than putting on makeup while driving or eating a Big Mac," said Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, who intends to vote against the bill. He says each of those activities poses a danger and noted that the state has laws that give officers the discretion to ticket for reckless driving. - News - Seattle Times read more

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