July 23 marked the one year anniversary of Washington’s E-DUI, Driving Under the Influence of Electronics law. And both a new study and law enforcement said some King County drivers are still having a hard time letting go of this dangerous habit.
The number of distracted driving accidents in Washington has been increasing since 2012, according to the Washington State Crash Data Portal, but peaked in 2016 before decreasing in 2017. Distracted driving is still a bigger cause of accidents than alcohol, which has maintained a relatively steady accident rate over the past decade.
The King County Target Zero Task Force safe driving goals become more challenging as crashes related to distracted driving increase.
From 2012-17, King County distracted driving crashes increased 69.5 percent. Fatalities went up from three in 2012, to 13 last year. Washington state’s distracted driving crashes has increased 56.9 percent in this same time, with fatalities up from 15 to 87, according to the Washington State Crash Data Portal.
Mercer Island has maintained a steady rate of distracted driving incidents since 2007. Incidents peaked on the Island in 2012 with 25 incidents and 2017 was the best year in a decade with only 17 incidents.
Distracted driving in this data set accounts for a number of distractions inside or outside the vehicle, including cell phone usage and when the distraction wasn’t identified.
So far in 2018 there’s been 1,368 distracted driving accidents in King County, with 86 of them being attributed to cell phone usage.
The Island holds the second lowest distracted driving accident rate on the Eastside with 7.24 percent of the 3,231 total accidents over the past decade being attributed to distracted driving. Out of the 234 distracted driving accidents on Mercer Island in the past decade, 26 are attributed to cell phone usage.
Washington’s rate over the past decade is 8.63 percent and King County’s rate is 7.5 percent. Out of the 5,326 fatal accidents that have occurred in Washington since 2007, 39 are attributed to cell phone usage with 27 occurring in King County and none occurring on Mercer Island, according to the Washington State Crash Data Portal.
Talking on a cell phone increases the risk of crashing three times, but texting increases crash risk up to 23 times, according to the Target Zero Task Force.
Just about 100 percent of accidents officers see in Redmond are caused by some form of inattention and using the phone is a major contributor to those crashes, according to Redmond Police Department’s traffic division. Many people don’t realize that distracted driving is even more dangerous than drunk driving, according to the same traffic division.
Distracted driving accident rates in Washington were intertwined with drunk driving accident rates until about 2012 when distracted driving began a steady increase until 2017. So far in 2018, there have been 1,070 more distracted driving crashes than drunk driving crashes.
The King County Target Zero Task Force conducted a survey of 900 King County drivers over the age of 18 to gauge if the messages about the new law have been effective, as well as to get an idea of driver’s phone behaviors.
Target Zero manager, Annie Kirk, said there was a gap between surveyed drivers understandings of the new law and their actual practices. Even though they recognize it’s an unsafe behavior and wouldn’t want drivers around them doing it.
Only 26 percent of surveyed drivers who texted believed they were likely to crash while doing this, and 12 percent of drivers who talked on a hand-held phone believed they were likely to crash while talking.
But more than 70 percent of people surveyed viewed another driver texting while driving as a very serious personal threat, according to the study.
Kirk said there was confusion among those surveyed over whether they were allowed to use their phone when they’re stopped at an intersection, which is illegal.
A driver will continue to be distracted 27 seconds after putting their phone down, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. In that time, a car moving at 25 mph can go as far as three football fields.
This fact concerned Target Zero so much its part of the reason they pushed to have cell phones banned at all times operating a motor vehicle, according to Kirk.
“We’re going to do some extra work to remind people that those aren’t times to check out of the responsibilities at hand and, when you’re on the road, we want your hands off the phone at all times,” Kirk said of being stopped in traffic or an intersection.
One of the only exceptions is calling 911. GPS is allowed to be running, but you aren’t allowed to type in an address into GPS while the vehicle is on, Kirk said. Another 18 percent of drivers said they use an app other than GPS while driving.
Surveyed drivers who read texts, typed texts, or talked on a hand-held phone mostly believed it unlikely they would be ticketed for this behavior.
From July 23 to July 29, King County law enforcement held extra patrols looking for these distracted drivers.
“We want to make sure we have people who understand this law, making good informed choices while behind the wheel. Our enforcement partnership is really just to reach those drivers who understand the law, but that’s not quite enough for them to change their behavior,” Kirk said. “Perhaps a citation is what needs to happen there.”
Redmond police traffic officer Davin Alsin estimates he averages seven tickets an hour for just texting violations. Alsin observed more people now seem to know they were in the wrong when pulled over for distracted driving, but the new law does not seem to have significantly deterred the behavior yet.
“Frequently I will issue a ticket for distracted driving only to see the same person, at the same time, at the same place the following day committing the exact same violation,” Alsin said.
Since this time last year, Redmond Police Department has issued 1,006 first time violations for distracted driving. Andrea Wolf-Buck, department public information officer, said they will be participating in the extra patrol week.
More than 27,800 citations have been given to Washington drivers from July 2017 to July 16, 2018, according to Washington Administrative Offices of the Courts. Of these, at least 9,676 tickets were given in King County. These numbers don’t include Seattle Municipal Court and some of Spokane Municipal Court.
According to Target Zero King County Task Force, low estimates are that Washington state law enforcement officers give an estimated 1,500 E-DUI tickets each month since July 2017.
From July 2017 to June 2018, Washington State Troopers pulled over around 18,503 primary offense contacts for distracted driving, which means drivers were handling their phone and troopers could issue a citation or warning, according to Washington State Patrol communications.
Kirk said the study showed 56 percent of surveyed drivers would stop using a cell phone if they received a ticket or if their ticket was reported to their car insurance.
Insurers said it’s still too soon to see if E-DUI’s will affect premiums in a unique way, because insurance companies still need data that would correlate E-DUI’s with the cost of settling claims and paying for injuries and damage, said Kenton Brine, president of Northwest Insurance Council.
Brine said even though some are saying insurers don’t care about E-DUI infractions, it’s actually a matter of waiting to see how many drivers are cited, and connected those tickets to other violations.
“An E-DUI ticket might have an impact on your insurance rate, but not different than if you had some other type of moving violation or some other accident on your driving record,” Brine said.
He said even once the data is available, insurers will greatly vary in how they choose to assess drivers with an E-DUI ticket.
Brine thinks it might be a year or two until there’s enough solid data for insurers, even though they know anecdotally that cell phone users can cause a higher accident.
But insurers even now are keeping a close eye on distracted driving, and the increase of crash rates and vehicular deaths from the last few years. They just haven’t determined what of many causes, texting, marijuana use, a rapidly increasing population, are leading to these accidents and how they should respond.
More than half of the surveyed drivers said they would stop using a cell phone if a passenger, family member, of friend asked them to stop, Kirk said.
“We encourage everyone to set safe expectations among family and friends when it comes to cell phone use while driving,” Kirk said.
The survey is set to repeat in 2019.
King County Sheriff’s Office didn’t have statistics available for the first year of E-DUI enforcement.