Mobile phone law now in effect

June 11, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

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NEW — 10:20 a.m. June 11, 2010

From interstates to county roads to Newcastle streets, law enforcement officers have started enforcing a state ban on a distracted-driving law meant to prod motorists to hang up — or at least go hands-free — and drive. The law went into effect yesterday.

Drivers now face a $124 fine if officers catch them texting, or with a mobile phone pressed against their ears. The state will require hands-free devices, such as Bluetooth earpieces, for callers talking and driving. Moreover, drivers younger than 18 cannot use wireless devices at all, except in emergencies.

Sgt. John Urquhart, King County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said deputies did not plan increased enforcement, known as emphasis patrols, because the agency lacks the manpower.

Washington State Patrol troopers will not offer a grace period after the law goes into effect.

The state sought to prohibit texting and requiring hands-free devices in 2008, but the earlier law treated the issues as secondary violations. Officers had to witness drivers speeding or in the midst of another infraction in order to conduct a traffic stop.

Under the earlier law, if police stopped a driver for another infraction, the motorist could be ticketed for talking on a mobile phone or for texting.

WSP Chief John Batiste said some motorists defied the ban — even if a trooper happened to be watching.

“They would look right at our troopers with phones held to their ears,” he said in a statement. “They knew that without another violation we couldn’t do anything.”

The updated law changes the violations from secondary to primary offenses. The law requires hands-free devices, although such devices do not necessarily prevent crashes.

State data from 2008 shows 827 crashes caused by drivers operating a handheld device — including 312 injury crashes — and 898 crashes caused by drivers using a wireless device — including 333 injury crashes and a fatal crash.

Angie Ward, distracted driving program manager for the state Traffic Safety Commission, called mobile-phone-related crashes “horrifically underreported” because many drivers do not want to admit they had been talking on a phone or texting before a crash. Investigators sometimes determine the cause of a crash after they discover a mobile phone in the hand of a dead or injured crash victim.

Officers said although the ban represents a step forward, other distractions for drivers remain unchecked.

“The cell phones are just the tip of the iceberg,” Urquhart said. “Anything that can distract you while driving — whether it’s eating a cheeseburger or changing the station or putting in a CD — is a hazard.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or

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