Park Your Phone When Driving. It’s the Law.

The first state to ban texting and driving over a decade ago has made it even harder to use your personal electronic device when behind the wheel.

Rachel Greve, Staff Reporter

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In the 10 months since the new texting and driving law went into effect, Washington State Patrol have ticketed more than 5,400 drivers and more than 200 in Kittitas County alone. Phone use behind the wheel is an issue that Washington State Patrol Trooper Brian Moore runs into every day.  

“This is a nationwide epidemic,” said Moore, the public information officer. “Until we as a nation realize how dangerous texting and driving is, we will continue to lose citizens.”

With almost 200 tickets being handed out in Kittitas County in the past 10 months, texting and driving is still a major issue Washington state faces.

But the problem may stem further than just texting and driving while alone in the car. Many still say they are comfortable in the car when the driver is on the phone, depending on the situation.

“In certain situations, I feel comfortable with the driver texting behind the wheel, but I know I probably shouldn’t,” CWU student Emily Gallagher said.

Gallagher received a citation in her hometown of Auburn, Washington, when she was in high school. She was stopped at a traffic light for looking down at her phone–like so many do–not realizing an officer was right beside her.  

Since Washington state first banned texting and driving in 2007, 46 other states have passed a law banning or prohibiting some sort of cell phone use while driving, including texting and driving. Washington state first passed a law banning texting and driving but not the use of GPS, Twitter or surfing any other social media sites. it wasn’t until 2015 that the state made it harder to use a phone while driving stating a phone call can still be made, however, it would need to be hands-free.

After a 32 percent increase in distracted driving fatalities between 2014 and 2015, state lawmakers saw a need for a more specific, re-worded law that made all phone use illegal.

As of July 23, 2017, a new state law made it illegal to use a personal electronic device while driving unless you are using a single touch to activate Bluetooth or GPS. The law also includes reading, writing or sending a text message, which includes using it at a stop light or stopped in heavy traffic. If a driver is found to be using or holding a personal electronic device, including a cell phone, tablet, video game or any other messaging device, they will be fined $136 the first time and  $272 for repeated offenses. The ticket is referred to as an Electronic DUI (E-DUI), and these offenses are now being reported to the driver’s insurance, allowing insurance companies to raise rates.

“Six years ago when the law was beginning to be enforced more, an insurance company would maybe have one report a quarter when it came to texting and driving,” bill supporter and Washington State Sen. Ann Rivers (R- La Center) said. “And now there are at least six or seven a day reported.”

The same day the new cell phone law went into effect, a second law that made distracted driving a secondary offense also went into effect. The offense is a $99 fine and a law many are confused and frustrated about.

With the confusion between what is considered a primary and a secondary offense, many are left wondering if they can even drink their morning cup of coffee without getting a ticket.

“It’s not illegal to drink your morning coffee or eat a muffin, but when you are eating that Big Mac and swerving in lanes and driving dangerously, that’s when it becomes illegal,” CWU Campus Police Lieutenant Marc McPherson said.

A primary offense is a law that is enforced at all times and something you can be pulled over for, including changing lanes without using a blinker, running a stop sign or speeding.

In the state of Washington, a secondary offense is a law that can only be enforced when a primary offense occurs, meaning that a ticket can only be issued to a driver if they run a stop sign while drinking coffee or eating a sandwich.

In an attempt to hit the state goal of zero traffic deaths by the year 2030, the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission has launched Target Zero, a campaign that aims at eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries on state highways and roads.

It’s not uncommon for drivers to think they can use their phones without any consequences.

That’s what Snohomish County Fire District Captain Steve Ness thought when he was texting and driving this past March.

“I thought I was invincible, just like every other person who is texting and driving. They think ‘It’ll never be me,’” Ness said. “And then it happens to you.”

Ness was looking down at his phone when he ran his truck off the road, running over multiple trees and completely destroying his truck. An outcome Ness is thankful for.

“Lucky for me no one was on the sidewalk when I went up on it,” said Ness. “It could have been a lot worse for myself or someone else if they were on the sidewalk.”

A recent study done by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that drivers who are texting on their cell phones are just as dangerous as drivers who have a blood-alcohol level of .08 percent, many officers agree.

“I think it’s worse for someone who is texting and driving than it is for someone who is drunk and driving,” McPherson said. “There have been many times I think I am about to pull over a drunk driver and take someone to jail and they end up just being someone texting and driving.”

McPherson explained that someone who chooses to text and drive is making a conscious decision to put themselves and others in danger, while the choices and decisions of those under the influence of alcohol are often impaired.

However, McPherson advises to never text and drive nor get behind the wheel after consuming alcohol.

Rivers compared the new texting and driving law to the seatbelt law passed in June of 1986.

“When the seatbelt law first passed, it still wasn’t something a lot of people followed,” Rivers said. “But now you almost never see anyone driving without wearing a seatbelt. We hope the same thing happens with cellphone use.”

Although the new texting and driving law states it is legal to talk on the phone via Bluetooth or speaker, many reports and new studies have shown that it could be just as dangerous as texting and driving. According to a study done by Target Zero, a driver is three times more likely to get in an accident when talking on the phone.

“Phone conversations are different than talking to a passenger,” said Shelly Baldwin, legislative and media relations manager for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. “The brain is trying to figure out what it is seeing on the road while trying to also picture what the person on the phone is doing as well.”

When it comes to distracted driving in Kittitas County, Sheriff’s Department Deputy Rob Hoctor advises parents to talk to their children and family members.

Hoctor has made his son aware of the dangers of texting and driving and says he’ll revoke car privileges if his son is caught texting behind the wheel.

“Parents need to tell their kids about how dangerous it is,” Hoctor said. “Parents need to take away their kid’s car or punish them if they get a ticket to teach them a lesson.”

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Park Your Phone When Driving. It’s the Law.