Driver distraction bills near passage in Washington state

| 5/4/2007

Two bills intended to limit driver distractions are headed to Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire’s desk.

The Senate voted 33-15 to sign off on House changes to the bill that would ban hand-held cell phone use while driving in the state unless it’s an emergency. Talking on a phone equipped with a “hands-free” device would still be permitted.

Sponsored by Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, the measure would make driving while using a hand-held phone a secondary offense – meaning drivers would have to be pulled over for another violation, such as speeding, before they could be ticketed for talking on the phone.

Amendments to exempt commercial drivers and taxi drivers were rejected in the House.

Eide wrote in the bill – SB5037 – that “while wireless communications devices have assisted with quick reporting of road emergencies, their use has also contributed to accidents and other mishaps … When motorists hold a wireless communications device in one hand and drive with the other their chances of becoming involved in a traffic mishap increase.”

However, more studies show that hands-free and hand-held phones are equally distracting. Opponents of cell phone restrictions also say that talking on cell phones is no more distracting than eating, drinking or changing radio stations while driving.

In fact, research by the University of North Carolina determined that cell-phone use ranked eighth in terms of distraction, The Patriot-News reported.

The bill isn’t the only effort in the state to curb distracting activities while behind the wheel. House lawmakers voted 90-8 to agree to Senate changes to a bill that would ban text messaging while driving. The vote cleared the way for the bill – HB1214 – to head to the governor’s desk.

Sponsored by Rep. Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, the bill would prohibit operating a motor vehicle while reading, writing or sending a message on an electronic wireless device, such as Blackberry devices.

The Senate amended the bill to make infractions a secondary offense.

Both bills would fine violators $101. No points would be added to driver’s licenses and insurance companies wouldn’t be notified.