Sunday, February 23, 2020
Feb. 23, 2020

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Enforcement of strengthened cell phone law begins Thursday


Liz Luce advocates a new kind of call-waiting: that is, waiting until the car stops before answering the phone or returning a text.

Luce, former Clark County auditor and now the director of the Washington Department of Licensing, joined with the Washington State Patrol on Monday to warn drivers that on Thursday texting or talking while driving becomes a primary offense.

For two years, it has been illegal to talk or text while driving, but that was a “secondary violation,” enforceable only if a driver committed a primary violation at the same time, such as speeding.

Now, the law gets its teeth.

Beginning Thursday at 12:01 a.m., law enforcement officers will have the ability to pull a driver over for nothing other than sliding a cell phone to an ear, or typing simple phrases, such as “C u soon.”

Last week, text messaging was at the center of crashes on consecutive days in Clark County. It’s no wonder, then, that on Monday, it was texting, not talking, that dominated conversation.

“It’s not worth the life of someone else,” said Luce. “You can travel the length of a football field in the time it takes to read a short text message.”

Studies have shown that texting while driving is six to 23 times more dangerous than not texting while driving.

Last September, a driver who was texting while driving caused the death of Hudson’s Bay High School teacher Gordon Patterson, who was riding his bicycle in a bike lane. The texting driver was sentenced to five years in prison.

“It’s the worst thing you can do,” Luce said. “It’s scary.”

Some exceptions

The revised law prohibits “improper cell phone use,” meaning drivers who use hands-free devices will be unaffected. There are exceptions, as well, for drivers with hearing-aids or those reporting emergencies to 911.

Drivers, too, who cradle their phone in the palm of their hand and use an internal speaker phone function won’t be disturbed, said Washington State Patrol Capt. Chris Gundermann, reasoning a phone held as such doesn’t block a driver’s view of the road.

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But for blatant lawbreakers, Gunderman delivered this message: Come Thursday, don’t expect any leeway.

“If you’re holding your cell phone, you’re likely to be stopped,” Gunderman said. “When you’re driving, you should be driving.”

The Department of Licensing, which oversees curriculum for driver-training programs, is taking an active role in spreading the message that intermediate drivers caught talking — hands-free, even — will face severe consequences. In Washington, that’s anyone ages 16 to 18.

“Unless they’re reporting an emergency, no, nothing,” said Tony Sermonti, a spokesman with the Department of Licensing. “And being late to the prom isn’t an emergency.”

A teen ticketed for talking or texting can expect a $124 fine. Two violations, such as talking and failing to wear a seat belt, could result in a driver’s license suspension and, possibly, an extension of intermediate restrictions until the driver turns 21.

It gets worse.

“We are sending a letter to your parent or guardian,” Luce said of intermediate drivers cited in violation of the revised law.

The law notwithstanding, officials at the press conference said they would prefer drivers not to use their phones at all, in any capacity, while driving.

“Study after study has demonstrated that talking on the phone while driving seriously impairs your awareness and ability to react,” Lowell Porter, the executive director of the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission, said in a press release. The commission used the Monday press conference to unveil its new slogan: “Text, Talk, Ticket: Hang up & Drive.”