Not all that long ago, driving under the influence of alcohol often was greeted with a nod and a wink — an acknowledgement that it’s probably not a good idea but isn’t really that big of a deal. The same can be said for driving without latching on a seat belt, which was considered a matter of personal freedom.
But increased attention to those behaviors, along with strict laws and changing public mores, have helped make the roads safer for all of us. According to national statistics, traffic fatalities have gone from 10.89 per 100 million miles traveled in 1940, to 3.35 in 1980, to 1.11 in 2010. Undoubtedly, safer vehicles have contributed to that, but so have changes in public policy.
Now, with the rise of smartphones presenting a new kind of danger on the roads, legislators should take the next step in protecting the public. Washington’s decade-old law governing cellphone use behind the wheel needs some updating to meet changes in the behavior of drivers and to drive home (pardon the pun) the notion that distracted driving is dangerous. Legislators have been stuck in neutral (pardon another pun) on this issue, which points out the need for passage of House Bill 1371 or companion Senate Bill 5289, sponsored by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center.
Currently, Washington law only prohibits texting or phone calls in which a wireless device is clearly held to a driver’s ear. This leaves tacit approval of checking Facebook or downloading apps while driving. The new bills would prohibit the use of any handheld device while driving, with limited exceptions for a finger stroke on a navigation device. They also would double the fine — currently $124 — for a second or third offense of distracted driving.
The need for such action is represented by a state survey conducted last year. The Washington State Traffic Safety Commission found that 9.2 percent of drivers were distracted, most often fiddling with their cellphones. In Clark County, 7.4 percent of drivers were deemed to not be paying attention, which might be better than the state average but still is nothing to crow about. State officials also attributed 171 traffic deaths in 2015 to distracted driving — an increase from 130 the previous year.
Being distracted behind the wheel is not the sole purview of young drivers, but it is particularly problematic among younger generations who are tethered to their cellphones. As Gina Bagnariol-Benavides of Auburn testified before the House Transportation Committee, “We’re raising a generation of kids that don’t know a life without it, and we have to do something now to make them understand that it’s a tool to be used at an appropriate time, and that time is never when you’re behind the wheel of a vehicle.”
Increasing fines for using a cellphone while driving and raising public awareness of the issue will not immediately alter behavior. But it will emphasize the importance of paying attention to the road and, over time, help make those roads safer for all drivers. Changes to public policy regarding drunk driving and the use of seat belts have provided vast public-health benefits in recent decades, and declaring that distracted driving is not acceptable will have the same impact.
The issue, for many, is a matter of government overreach and a quashing of individual freedom. But those concerns must take a back seat (sorry) to making the roads safer for the vast majority of drivers who act responsibly.