Driver distraction bills advance in Washington state

| 3/29/2007

A bill that would require drivers in Washington state to keep their hands off the phone is at the midway point in the statehouse. The Senate voted 29-18 to advance a bill to the House 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.

Violators would face $101 fines. No points would be added to driver’s licenses and insurance companies wouldn’t be notified.

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. While Eide’s bill advances to the state’s House another bill recently won approval in that chamber clearing the way for it to move to the Senate.

The bill – HB1214 – would ban text messaging while driving.

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. Law enforcement would have authority to pull over offending drivers and issue $101 citations.

During a recent hearing on the bill supporters said a provision should be included that would exempt text messaging communication between transit operators and dispatch.

Despite legislative support to curb distracted driving activities for all drivers, another bill – HB1153 – has died that focused on beginning drivers.

Sponsored by Rep. Dawn Morrell, D-Puyallup, the bill missed a deadline to advance from the House, effectively killing it. People who hold instruction permits and intermediate licenses would have been prohibited from using hand-held and hands-free devices while driving. Violation of the ban would have been a primary offense.