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Legislative Update: Tougher distracted driving law goes into effect July of this year

Posted Wednesday, June 7, 2017 by Lisa Benedetti

DrivingOn July 23, 2017, Washington’s new distracted-driving law goes into effect. The Legislature had agreed to postpone its implementation to 2019, but Governor Jay Inslee vetoed that compromise provision. As a result, drivers have just a few weeks to familiarize themselves with these new rules.

Currently, drivers are prohibited from “holding a wireless communications device to his or her ear,” as well as sending, reading, or writing a text message, while driving.

The new law is much broader, and prohibits nearly all uses of handheld electronic devices while driving. Note: driving includes not only when the vehicle is moving but also when temporarily stopped, such as at a stop sign, traffic light, or in traffic. It does not include times when the driver has pulled off the roadway where the vehicle “can safely remain stationary.”

The new distracted-driving law defines “personal electronic device” as “any portable electronic device that is capable of wireless communication or electronic data retrieval,” unless the device is “manufactured primarily for hands-free use in a motor vehicle.” It includes devices such as cell phones, tablets, laptops, two-way messaging devices, and electronic games, but this list is not exclusive.

The prohibited “uses” include: - Holding a personal electronic device in either hand or both hands; - Using your hand or finger to compose, send, read, view, access, browse, transmit, save, or retrieve email, text messages, instant messages, photographs, or other electronic data; and - Watching videos.

The law does allow for “the minimal use of a finger to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the device.” It also does not prohibit using such a device if it is to contact emergency services.

Any person who violates this law is guilty of a traffic infraction subject to a $136 fine. This is a primary offense, meaning the police can pull someone over just for committing this infraction. In the event of a second infraction, the fine increases to $235. Distracted-driving citations will also be reported on a motorist’s driving record, which can affect a driver’s insurance rates.

Additionally, the new law makes it a traffic infraction to “drive dangerously distracted,” which is defined as “engag[ing] in any activity not related to the actual operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of such motor vehicle on any highway.” This could include activities such as grooming or eating while driving. Driving dangerously distracted is a secondary offense, meaning it is not enforced unless the driver is detained for a suspected violation of a separate infraction.

Violation of this secondary infraction is subject to a $30 fine, which will go into a distracted driving prevention account to be used to support programs “dedicated to reducing distracted driving and improving driver education on distracted driving.”

This law makes great strides towards modernizing Washington law to address how changes in technology have affected people’s behavior on the road.

Photo credit: April10 033, used under the Creative Commons license.

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