Hang up and drive – or pay | In Our Opinion

Washington drivers have just about a week left to give up their reckless ways. For many of us, we’ll have to start learning new habits by Saturday, July 23.

That’s when Washington’s new “distracted driving” law goes into effect.

The law, passed by the Washington State Legislature this year and signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee with an earlier than expected start date, cracks down on bad behavior behind the wheel.

Specifically, drivers can’t use cell phones while driving. It’s hands off, entirely: no texting, talking on the phone or reading messages on social media. Also banned: no watching videos while driving, or taking pictures.

Washington already had a law against using cell phones while driving, but the new one does away with a loophole in the old: drivers can no more look at their cell phones when stopped in traffic or waiting at stop lights.

Other distractions for drivers have also been added in, such as smoking, eating, reading or grooming. Those activities can result in a fine if a driver is pulled over for another traffic offense.

What’s allowed? Hands-free devices, or electronic devices that are mounted, and can be started with a single touch, such as a GPS. Emergency calls are also OK, and drivers can still use a hand-held device while parked or if they pull over and get out of the flow of traffic.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 3,000 people are killed every year by distracted driving. In 2015, 167 people died in Washington in accidents involving a distracted driver.

Using a phone or other electronic device has been alarmingly common in Washington. A recent study released by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission found 9 to 14 percent of drivers were actively using a phone or other device while driving.

Officials also note that distracted driving was partly to blame in more than 43,000 collisions in Washington state in 2014, which is seven times higher than the number of drivers who were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

For those who need a financial incentive to change their bad behavior, consider this: Under the new law, using a handheld device is considered a primary offense, and the first ticket for distracted driving will cost a driver at least $136. A second offense within five years can bring a fine of $234. And for other types of distracted driving — eating, smoking, reading, and so on — drivers can get hit with a ticket for $99.

The message to drivers is simple. Keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel.