Driver distraction bills signed into law in Washington state

| Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire has signed two bills into law that are intended to limit driver distractions. Another new law increases the testing fee for commercial driver’s licenses.

The new fee for the CDL exam takes effect Jan. 15, 2008. The new law, previously HB1267, increases the fee from $75 to $100. It also requires drivers to take a training class.

The first distracted driver bill bans talking on hand-held phones while driving. The other bill prohibits reading, typing or sending text messages while at the wheel. Both measures make exceptions for emergencies.

Failure to adhere to either rule would be a secondary offense – meaning drivers would have to be pulled over for another offense, such as speeding, before they could be ticketed. Those found to be in violation would face $101 fines. No points would be added to driver’s licenses and insurance companies wouldn’t be notified.

Sen. Tracy Eide, D-Federal Way, 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.

With that at least partly in mind, Rep. Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, offered a bill intended to curb another distracting activity while behind the wheel.

The new law, previously HB1214, prohibits operating a motor vehicle while reading, writing or sending a message on an electronic wireless device, such as Blackberry devices.

When the cell phone rule goes into effect in July 2008, Washington will become the fifth state to ticket drivers for holding a phone to the ear while at the wheel. As of Jan. 1, the state will be the only one in the nation to restrict text-messaging.

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