OLYMPIA –– Two new bills could drive a deeper wedge between you and your smartphone on the road if passed by the state Legislature.
Drafted by Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, House Bill 1371 effectively prohibits any hands on interaction with handhelds of any kind while behind the wheel. This includes using cell phones, smartphones, and or any forms of communication such as texting.
A companion bill, SB 5289, sponsored by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, was filed this week.
According to state law, anyone “holding a wireless communications device to his or her ear,” either while driving or at traffic stops, is in violation. Drivers can pull over with or without the motor running when the driver has moved a vehicle safely to the side of, or off, a highway.
The law does not apply to emergency vehicles or tow trucks responding to disabled vehicles, or to drivers summoning emergency help or reporting illegal activity. Voice-command, hands-free global positioning systems are also exempt from traffic infraction.
In its current form the bills would permit drivers to interact with handheld devices with a one-finger touch to perform actions such as answering incoming calls. Any further interactions would only be permissible through hands-free, voice-commanded GPS or Bluetooth devices.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 80 percent of crashes are caused by distracted driving, 12 percent of which include cell phone usage, the highest single factor regulated by law.
Based on a bill originally introduced in 2015, the Senate bill mandates that drivers are not to have a smartphone in hand for any reason.
“Right now you can have [a smartphone] in your lap and look at it,” Rivers said. “If a phone is mounted on your dashboard, that’s a much more obvious thing.”
Multitasking, behind the wheel and otherwise, is a serious factor shaping motorists’ selective attention. Studies by the American Psychological Association found that even losing as much as half a second could result in a fatal accident on the road for drivers dividing their attention between the road and their phones.
“Any diversion of your attention from looking straight forward can lead to accidents,” said a spokesperson for the 911 Driving School in Lacey who preferred not to be named. “You cannot multitask on a cellphone.”
While state law explicitly prohibits texting while driving, Farrell, one of the House bill’s sponsors, believes that it does not address driver distractions such as smartphone apps — like Google Maps — while on the road.
“It is important to realize that our current laws are out of date,” Farrell said. “It says that you cannot text while driving, but if you were to be pulled over, you could just say, ‘Oh, well, I was just typing into the map function.’”
The bills would more than double the state’s minimum $124 fine for using a handheld device while driving to $350. Under current state law, use of a handheld behind the wheel is currently classified as a traffic infraction. The new bills would classify it as a moving violation and repeat offenders would be reported to insurance providers.
“When we report a traffic infraction, we submit a record of it to the court,” said Sgt. James Prouty of the Washington State Patrol’s Government and Media Relations Division. “Reporting infractions to auto insurers is not something we do.”
A proposed budget allocation in the bills includes an educational component bringing awareness of the law to drivers. This lines up with the state’s “Click It or Ticket” safety campaign, which encourages drivers to wear their seatbelt while driving.
Enforcing the traffic infraction created by the bills, based on driver interaction with a handheld, may be more difficult, however.
According to Prouty, traffic citations are typically issued by the State Patrol for motorists’ behavior on the road such as speeding or erratic driving, in addition to any information gathered from on-site interviews. Proving whether a driver was texting, or typing in coordinates to a map app, may be challenging to enforce.
“It’s not hard to know if a driver’s texting while driving or holding a cell phone to the ear. You can see that when you’re passing by,” Prouty said. “But proving whether someone was typing into their phone to text or conduct some other communication is much more difficult.”
Farrell said he hopes his bill reiterates the increasing harm of distracted driving.
“It’s important that we minimize the distraction of looking down at our phones which is just as dangerous as drinking while driving,” Farrell said.
Tim Gruver is a reporter with the WNPA Olympia News Bureau.
This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation. Reach reporters Enrique Pérez de la Rosa at firstname.lastname@example.org and Grace Swanson at email@example.com.