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News / Clark County News

Distracted-driving law takes effect Sunday

Few exceptions as state law becomes stricter, catches up with technology

By Andy Matarrese, Columbian environment and transportation reporter
Published: July 21, 2017, 6:44pm
3 Photos
A motorist is stopped for talking on a cellphone in Vancouver during an April emphasis patrol.
A motorist is stopped for talking on a cellphone in Vancouver during an April emphasis patrol. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Washington’s newest distracted-driving law, which aims to curb unsafe driving due to gadget use behind the wheel, goes into effect Sunday. Here’s what’s changing:

What’s new?

“The big change is you can no longer hold an electronic device — whether it’s an iPad, phone or what — while you’re operating your vehicle,” Clark County sheriff’s Detective Todd Young said. “This also includes when stopped in your vehicle.”

Currently, the law doesn’t necessarily preclude sending texts while stopped at a traffic light. The law is older than the newest technology and was aimed at phones being held to the ear.

The new law, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on May 16, was broadened to describe more toys and behaviors that aren’t allowed behind the wheel. It includes typing messages, accessing information, watching videos or using cameras, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

Are there exceptions?

Narrow ones, yes.

Drivers may still use their phone if they’re contacting emergency services. Or, if they’re parked out of the flow of traffic or starting up music or a GPS system before a trip.

Two-way radios, citizens band radio or amateur radio equipment are not part of the law’s scope.

Hands-free use through a wireless transmitter — Bluetooth, for example — is OK. Drivers can also use their device if it’s hands-free and can be started using a single touch, such as a GPS device.

Transit and emergency vehicle drivers are also exempt, and commercial vehicle drivers are still bound by federal law.

Fiddling with the phone while it’s in your lap or sitting in the cup holder doesn’t count, Young said.

“Obviously, in your lap, you’re not going to be looking at the roadway,” he said.

What’s the damage if you get caught?

The first ticket for a distracted-driving offense, if electronics were involved, will run at least $136. The cost increases per infraction, so a second ticket within five years of the first costs at least $234.

Also new: Insurance companies will hear about the tickets.

What hasn’t changed is that drivers who are smoking, eating, reading or grooming in such a way that it interferes with driving may see a $99 secondary fine.

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For instance, Todd said, if an officer stops a driver for drifting over the centerline and finds he was busy combing his hair, the driver might get a ticket for his sloppy driving and another for the distraction.

Even with hands-free devices or voice recognition, Young said, drivers need to understand that they still may create a distraction. They may not warrant or ticket, but they might be creating an unsafe situation.

Last year, survey-takers with the traffic commission recorded the behavior of 22,300 drivers at more than 300 intersections.

The researchers found that about 9.2 percent of all drivers on the road were somehow distracted, and 5.6 percent of the drivers they saw were distracted by their cellphones.

According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, distraction of some kind led to more than 12,300 crashes in 2016 statewide, including 79 fatal crashes.

Cellphone use was connected to 773 of those crashes, five of which were fatal.

There were 46 cellphone-related crashes in Clark County in 2016.

Other new laws that take effect Sunday:

• Prosecutors will be able to file felony charges if a person gets a fourth DUI within 10 years. Under the new law, offenders would be sent to prison for 13 to 17 months, rather than serve shorter sentences in county jails.

• Courts will be allowed to issue permanent protection orders for victims of sexual assault. Currently, victims of sexual assault can only be granted a protection order for up to two years, which means they must reappear in court to repetition for a new order. Under the new law, those orders can now be made permanent. In cases where a permanent order isn’t issued, under this new measure the courts will grant a renewal of the order unless perpetrators can prove they are no longer a threat to the victim.

• The creation of a new crime of theft involving a vulnerable adult any person 18 years or older who is clearly mentally or physically unable to care for himself or herself or suffers from a cognitive impairment. The new statute ranks the crime at a higher seriousness level of theft.

• Expansion of education program for inmates. A new law authorizes the state Department of Corrections to partner with community and technical colleges to provide associate degree programs, expanding existing programs at the state’s prisons that provide basic education and job training. Priority for the programs would be given to inmates within five years of release. Those serving sentences of life without parole, or who are on death row, are ineligible.

• It will be illegal for a person to leave a dog tethered for a reckless period of time without providing him or her with adequate access to food, water and shelter. Dogs must also be placed in a safe and sanitary area that protects them from excessive heat or cold.

Lawmakers concluded a marathon triple-overtime legislative session Thursday night, setting a record with 193 consecutive days in session in a year. They left town without passing a $4 billion capital budget because of a dispute over water rights.

Negotiations on that bill collapsed, and the Legislature adjourned without taking up either bill, though lawmakers say they will continue negotiations in hopes of being able to return to the Capitol for a one-day session for votes at a later date.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Columbian environment and transportation reporter