Texting while driving now illegal

MIPD to enforce ban on texting behind the wheel

By Elizabeth Celms
Mercer Island Reporter

On Jan. 1, sending a text message while behind the wheel could incur a fine of up to $101. According to a new Washington state law aimed at curbing road fatalities, any driver pulled over for a traffic violation and subsequently caught sending, writing or reading a cell phone text message is punishable. Officers will also have the right to confiscate a driver’s phone.

The law, called EHB 1214, is a secondary enforcement law, which means that police can only ticket individuals after they commit a traffic violation, such as speeding, running a red light or driving without a seat belt. The infraction will not show on an individual’s driving record, although it will be accessible to insurance companies and employers.

“If we see somebody texting, we can’t pull them over solely for this violation. We have to have some other legal reason, such as breaking the limit, so it gets a little bit tricky,” said Mercer Island Police Commander Leslie Burns. She added that the original “click it or ticket” seat belt law was also a secondary offense until it changed to a primary offense several years ago.

In July, the state will impose a ban on using cell phones without a hands-free device while driving. For both new laws, drivers are exempt in some cases, including emergencies, and the price of the ticket will be determined on an individual basis. In some cases, Burns pointed out, drivers may get away with a reminder while the law is still fresh.

“Officers have a huge amount of discretion on things like this,” she said. “It’s pretty obvious when [drivers] need a reminder or citation to make the point.”

However, Burns emphasized that the MIPD is taking the law very seriously. If a person is caught driving erratically with a cell phone in hand, police will most likely write up a full penalty. As with all traffic citations, drivers have the right to argue their case in court. Therefore, the officer must be sure that the cell phone was, indeed, cause for the driver’s distraction.

“[Officers] must be able to articulate the reasons why they know the person was texting, because it’s most likely going to go to court, so you have to be sure,” Burns pointed out.

Despite the ambivalent scenarios the law may create, Burns said she supports the ban.

“Anything that takes attention away from driving as much as texting does, in an age where there is so much traffic congestion, is a good thing to get rid of.”

Kate Willette, product manager of Swerve Driving School, which holds classes on Mercer Island, agrees that the ban is crucial for drivers’ safety.

“We fully support these laws and hope they’re enforced. Distraction is just a bad thing, especially when new at driving,” she said.

According to a 1997 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the risk of having a traffic accident while using a cellular phone is the same as that while driving drunk.

In December 2006, a Washington driver typing on a BlackBerry cell phone caused a five-car pileup on Interstate 5. The accident, according to House Majority Leader Lynn Kesler, fueled state-wide interest in bills regulating the use of these devices on the road.

Last week, almost exactly one year after the I-5 accident, Governor Chris Gregoire signed the state-wide measure against text messaging into law. The ban is aimed at teenage drivers, who are especially vulnerable when behind the wheel.

“Students are still trying to put together all the pieces of driving,” Willette said. “They have to do everything consciously for quite a long time.”

Willette, who oversees Swerve’s instructional curriculum, said she believes most young drivers know the dangers of using a cell phone while driving. “It’s my experience that students are abreast of these things,” she said. “They know.”

Yet knowing the law and abiding by it are two different things.

Mercer Island High School graduate Erik Buckmiller, who attends Brigham Young University in Utah as a freshman, said he doesn’t think the new legislation will phase many young drivers.

“I think most of the kids I know will keep texting because it’s a secondary offense, so unless you’re swerving as a result of texting it is [hard to get caught],” he said.

Yet Buckmiller is well aware of the consequences and responsibilities of using a cell phone behind the wheel.

“Texting does increase the danger in people’s ability to drive effectively,” he said. “You should just wait until you can come to a safe stop before using your phone.”

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