OLYMPIA— One year after using handheld cellphones while driving became a primary offense in the state, citations for violating the law have increased more than sevenfold in Southwest Washington.
As of today — the one-year anniversary of the amped-up law — the Washington State Patrol reports handing out 647 citations in the past year in Clark, Cowlitz, Lewis, Skamania and Klickitat counties for handheld cellphone use while driving.
The law deems illegal merely holding a phone up to one’s ear while driving, but troopers could not pull anyone over specifically for this violation the previous year. That year, troopers in the area issued 91 citations to drivers chatting on cellphones.
Far more drivers in the area also received warnings for violating the law. That number shot up from 366 last year to 1,155 this year.
Whether to issue a warning or a citation when pulling a driver over is entirely up to individual officers, WSP spokesman Bob Calkins said.
“Some troopers will decide before they ever get out of the car,” Calkins said. “Others will wait until they hear the person’s story.”
Trooper Ryan Tanner, a Clark County spokesman for the WSP, said he takes a cautious approach when stopping drivers for illegal cellphone use.
“I try to take the minimum amount of enforcement necessary,” Tanner said, “and that’s kind of what our agency policy is.”
Citations for texting while driving in the five-county area doubled, growing from 24 to 45, since the law became a primary offense.
Throughout the state this year, troopers issued citations for 44 percent of the drivers pulled over for texting while driving. The rate for handheld cellphone use remained higher, though, as 47 percent of those pulled over in this category received citations.
It is easier to pull people over for chatting on a cellphone than for texting, Calkins said. This is partly because drivers are becoming more adept at keeping their phones out of sight while texting, but the law also allows drivers to browse their contacts list.
“It’s not illegal to look through your contacts list to see who you want to call,” he said. “So now, how do you know? Was the person texting and emailing or were they thumbing through their contacts list?”
There is also no way troopers can pull drivers over when they do not actually see their phones in use.
Calkins hears varying reports of progress from troopers around the state. Some say they see fewer drivers texting on highways but frequent violations in the slower traffic of city streets.
Still Calkins wants to stress the danger of texting while driving.
“You can go a long way while you’re looking down to type ‘LOL’,” he said.
Traffic accident rates are down throughout the state this year, but Tanner is not sure whether the stricter cellphone law has played any part in bringing that number down. Calkins believes the law has been a success, though.
“You have to believe you’re having a positive impact,” he said. “The law certainly sends the right message to drivers.”