When Washington became the first state to ban texting and driving, Twitter was barely a year old and the first generation iPhone was still months away.
Eight years later, smartphones can send emails, plan routes, play videos, and Washington’s outdated law means all of it can be done – legally – behind the wheel. That’s what a new push to update the law aims to change.
Senate Bill 5656 would make it illegal to hold a phone while driving altogether. Sen. Ann Rivers is prime sponsor. “The reality is, for us, our legislation has not kept pace with technology,” the La Center Republican said. “A lot more people have had near misses or serious accidents because of distracted driving.”
The bill, requested by the state Traffic Safety Commission, would make exceptions for emergency responders and drivers making calls to 911. Everything else would have to be hands-free. Drivers caught violating the law would face a $124 fine. Two violations in five years and the amount would double.
Washington State Patrol spokesperson Bob Calkins says, right now, distracted driving tickets are thrown out because the law isn’t specific enough. “Courts around the state have interpreted the law, as it stands now, to mean only texting” he said. “So, if someone is checking Facebook or stock quotes, troopers can’t write a ticket.”
Supporters say requiring drivers to be hands-free would make the state’s distracted driving law easier to enforce. Troopers gave tickets to fewer than half of the 2,500 drivers pulled over for texting and driving in 2013.
While troopers don’t cite every drive they stop, Calkins says the loophole in state law is partly responsible. “You can’t get a search warrant, you don’t have the authority to grab someone’s phone and look at what they’re doing,” he said. “We have to take their word for it.”
Some say the bill is too broad and there are better ways to keep drivers hands off their phones and on the wheel. That’s partly why the law hasn’t been updated so far. Former Sen. Tracey Eide sponsored a similar measure last year, but it stalled in a Senate committee.
The National Highway Traffic Safety last year made more than $20 million available in federal grants as part of a distracted driving program. Washington did not qualify because of its outdated law.
The Senate Transportation Committee heard the bill on Monday, but so far, it has not been scheduled for a vote. Last year’s measure died in the Senate Rules Committee.