Washington Distracted Driving Laws
- Handheld ban for all drivers (Primary Law).
- Ban on all cell phone use (handheld and hands-free) for novice drivers (Primary Law).
- Ban on texting for all drivers (Primary Law).
Washington’s Texting While Driving Stand
Washington was one of the first six states to adopt laws prohibiting drivers from text messaging. A definite catalyst for the initiative was that 758 fatalities occurred in the state from 2004 through 2008 in which inattention or distracted driving was a cause. King County experienced the greatest number of losses.
The governor signed the original legislation prohibiting the use of one’s hands for cell phone control into law in May 2007, with a ban on text messaging also put into action on January 1, 2008. These laws were considered secondary offenses, meaning a driver could not be stopped just because they are holding a cell phone to the ear or text messaging. State Patrol indicated the legislation helped reduce the number of accidents with handheld electronic devices shown to be a contributing factor. The actual number of collisions dropped from 1,118 in 2007 to 827 a year later. Law enforcement simply issued warnings to the majority of the drivers who were stopped that first year, but 1,659 drivers were given citations for handheld cell phone usage, and another 221 drivers were ticketed for text messaging violations.
In 2010, legislation intensified, making holding a cell phone up to the ear and text messaging primary offenses. Drivers could now be stopped for using their handheld electronic devices. The state House and Senate debated making stricter laws regarding distracted driving. Most notably, there was opposition by the House to making adult cell phone use a primary offense. The provision stuck, and Governor Chris Gregoire ultimately signed the revised bills into legislation.
On June 10, 2010, enforcement began of State Senate Bill 6345 and a Companion Bill, State House Bill 2635. Washington State law was modified to prohibit both texting and holding a cell phone to the ear for young drivers with instruction permits or intermediate licenses. Drivers found guilty of this primary offense are imposed a $124 fine and receive a warning letter from the Department of Licensing. The driver’s parents get a copy as well and repeat offenders face possible license suspension until the age of 18 years.
In addition to changes specific to under-age drivers, any person driving a vehicle and sending, reading, or writing text messages is also in a misdemeanor violation of state law. Each of these infractions was elevated to a “primary enforcement” status, meaning drivers are subject to being issued citations based solely on these violations. The most recent changes to Washington State law as reported by the Murrow News Service brought traffic citation statistics up five times in numbers from 1,344 tickets for distracted driving in 2009 to 6,850 from June 2010 to May 2011.
Bill 6345 is the work of State Senator Tracey Eide who spent ten years trying to improve the laws by taking on the issue created by technological advancements. She also sponsored the original hands-free bill in 2008. A House supporter of Eide’s bill and one of the sponsors of Companion Bill, HB 2635 is Representative Reuven Carlyle.
During the debate, Carlyle concluded that the original law “is flouted because it’s a secondary offense.” In addition, Eide argued that two-thirds of teenage drivers admit to texting and driving, and due to that fact she stated, “We’ve got a critical public safety issue on our hands.” After the bills passed into law, a relieved Eide said, “Maybe now people will pay attention to their driving instead of their conversations.”
On May 16, 2011, the governor signed House Bill 1103. It revised some wording regarding prohibitions of video equipment installed in vehicles. Only devices accessible and visible to the driver are prohibited from that person’s use, and allowances are made for live images of the vehicle backing up.
The 2012 Washington State Legislature has already approved House Bill 2736 and Companion Senate Bill 6534. These would stipulate deviations between commercial and noncommercial drivers and the text messaging law. A commercial driver is allowed to pull off to the side of the roadway, leave the motor running and engage in text messaging. An amendment withdrew the exclusion of some school bus drivers.