In Our View: Keep Your Eyes on the Road

New law makes any cellphone, tablet use behind the wheel a $136 fine

Published:

 

Old habits, they say, die hard. So allow us to impart some advice: Start making it a point to ignore your phone while driving.

Of course, you should have been doing that all along. Distracted driving is a scourge that endangers drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists. Last year, 20 percent of the fatal crashes in Washington were linked to distracted driving, and the state’s Traffic Safety Commission found that texting while driving can increase a driver’s risk of causing a crash by 23 percent. In addition, studies show that incidents of inattentive driving have sharply increased in recent years.

While those dangers are well known, the costs associated with distracted driving are about to increase in Washington. A new law, one championed by state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, goes into effect Sunday and increases the penalties for handling your phone while behind the wheel. Holding your phone, even while waiting at a stoplight, can result in a fine of $136 for the first violation and $235 for each subsequent citation during a five-year period. And, yes, the penalties apply for other electronic devices, such as tablets.

Exceptions are allowed for a finger swipe to start a navigation device or to start or stop a function on your phone — such as a music playlist. The use of mounted phones equipped with hands-free technology also is allowed.

“I wish we didn’t need a stronger law, but it’s clear that people need a new reason to concentrate on the road ahead instead of something else in the car,” Rivers said when the bill was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee. “I’ll bet most people who drive our highways have witnessed the kind of risky behavior this bill is meant to discourage.”

Indeed, the law brings up questions about risky behavior and the need for government oversight. Some will decry it as an overreach that is little more than an intrusion upon individual rights. Many people, after all, use their phones while driving and have managed to do so safely to this point.

But traffic laws long have served as an example of the benefits to slightly limiting personal freedom in order to enhance the public good. Consider the changing social mores around drinking and driving, an act that once was greeted with little more than a nod and a wink but now is roundly scorned. Led by pressure that began with Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the 1980s, societal norms and laws have shifted over the years — and we all are safer for it.

Or consider the notion that laws requiring seat belts once were controversial. Now they are common — and we all are safer for it.

Those two examples — along with safer vehicles — are key factors in a sharp decline in traffic fatalities over the years. Nationally, traffic fatalities have gone from 10.89 per 100 million miles traveled in 1940, to 3.35 in 1980, to 1.11 in 2010.

The rise of cellphones now calls for the same kind of societal attention once afforded drunk driving and seat-belt use. But no law can be effective without adequate enforcement. The Traffic Safety Commission has recommended that officers issue warnings during the first six months of the new law, but that will be up to the discretion of officers.

Meanwhile, drivers should begin making adjustments if they have not already. Distracted driving long has been dangerous, and starting Sunday it will become more costly. For those who commonly use their phones while driving, now is a good time to start breaking those old habits.