OLYMPIA — Lawmakers heard emotional testimony this week from people who lost friends and family members in car accidents caused by drivers distracted by their phones. They are among many who want to make it illegal to hold any hand-held device while driving and ensure offenders receive harsher penalties.
Measures in the House and the Senate would ban the use of any hand-held devices while driving including phones, tablets and other electronic devices that could impair a person’s attention while on the road. The proposal would also double the fine, which is currently $136 if caught texting or holding a phone to the ear while driving. But it can be difficult to prove a driver is doing so, said Sgt. James Prouty of the Washington State Patrol.
Currently, if a driver is pulled over for texting but tells the officer that they were typing in a phone number to make a call, they’re not in violation of the law, Prouty said. “It definitely causes some difficulty in the enforcement,” he said.
House Bill 1371 would expand the current law so drivers would not be allowed to hold any personal electronic device with their hands while driving, with the exception of amateur radios and to conduct “minimal use of a finger” to activate programs like a navigation system or Siri on the iPhone.
The bill attempts to make people pay attention and to simplify the law, said sponsor Rep. Jessyn Farrell, a Democrat from Seattle.
“Phones should still be functional, we should still be able to use them, but we just need to do it in a way that’s safer,” Farrell said. “The goal really is to make people stop looking down, typing and reading because that is what’s really interrupting peoples’ concentration and leading to increased accidents.”
According to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, 30 percent of deadly traffic accidents in the state were caused by distracted driving last year, and the number of traffic deaths has continued to rise since 2014.
Several people traveled to Olympia to speak at a House public hearing Thursday, including Chuck Cope, whose 20-year-old daughter was killed two years ago on Highway 26 in a head-on collision. Cope said the accident was caused by a 18-year-old distracted driver, who he believes was using his cellphone.
“Washington state law does not address today’s technology and does not provide the tools that law enforcement need to address the behavior on the road,” said Cope, who held back tears during his testimony.
Without any witnesses or a self-admission, Cope said police officers’ hands were tied and could not pursue a distracted driving charge. The case was closed after the teen paid a $250 fine for reckless driving in the second degree, he said.
“She was our little star; the world is a darker place because she is gone and since she is gone I will be her voice, she supports the bill and asks you to move it forward,” he said to the Transportation Committee. “It can’t save her, but I believe it will save others.”
Under House Bill 1631, a person would break the law if he or she engages in any activity that could interfere with safely operating their motor vehicle such as eating, drinking coffee or putting on makeup. It would also double the penalty for any moving violation committed by a driver who drives while distracted. The revenues made from the infractions would support educational programs and promotions dedicated to reducing distracted driving.
Republican Rep. Dave Hayes, the sponsor of the measure, says his bill takes a broader approach to what “dangerously distracted” means and what should be illegal while behind the wheel. Hayes, a retired Marysville police officer, says he’s witnessed people putting on makeup, grabbing things from their backseats, eating french fries and watching videos on their phones while driving down congested roadways.
Under his bill, distracted driving would be a secondary offense.
“No matter what the distraction was, the officer would have the discretion of adding distracted driving onto the end of that original infraction and increasing the fine by half,” he said.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures 14 states currently ban any hand-held cellphone use while driving in a car; however, 37 states and D.C. ban all cellphone use by beginner or teen drivers. Washington state bans all cellphone use for any learning or intermediate license holders. Forty six states prohibit texting messaging for all drivers.