Wash. state overhauls distracted driving law

Gov. Jay Inslee signs distracted driving law update

Washington state drivers looking forward to another year and a half of relatively lax distracted driving laws are in for a surprise:

Gov. Jay Inslee signed the “Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act” into law, as expected, but not before vetoing the Legislature’s enactment date of Jan. 1, 2019. The tougher electronic distracted driving law now goes into effect in mid-July 2017.

“We can’t wait that long,” Inslee said to cheers and applause at the bill signing.

The new law doubles fines for repeated violations of texting or other uses of a handheld cell phone. First offenses become moving violations, meaning the ticket will be reported to insurance companies, as with most other traffic citations.

“Our message is simple with this bill,” Inslee said at the Tacoma signing May 16. “Put the cell phones down.” Inslee was joined by legislators and family members of victims of distracted driving, top photo.

Sponsored by state Sen. Ann Rivers (and Rep. Jessyn Farrell in the House), the 2017 act also gives a technical update to the distracted driving laws, which have fallen behind the times. The new law cites a list of potential smartphone functions such as composing texts, taking photos and viewing videos.

Washington’s Traffic Safety Commission maintained in recent years that the existing laws were groundbreaking a decade ago, but outdated today. The new law focuses on the holding of personal electronic devices, but allows “minimal” interaction to turn on some functions such as GPS.

As written, current Washington state law bars text messaging but “doesn’t preclude you from looking at Facebook or the Internet as you’re driving,” said Darrin Grondel, director of the Traffic Safety Commission.

The fine of $136 continues to apply to a first offense.

The law rewrite also establishes the add-on offense of “driving dangerously distracted,” but with secondary enforcement and a base fine of $30.

“We’re suffering a scourge of death of our loved ones on our roadways, due to two problems: distracted driving and impaired driving,” Inslee said. “Today I’m signing three bills to confront these scourges head-on.” The other new laws make a fourth DUI a felony, and implement recommendations from a task-force on impaired driving.

Lawmakers Rivers and Farrell both saw their distracted driving measures advance but ultimately fall short in recent years. A committee chairman noted that the 2017 measures had easier paths this year because lawmakers were more familiar with the issue.

The House approved Rivers’ Senate Bill 5289 in a 61-36 vote of April 19. The Senate’s final vote of 39-10 also came April 19. (Farrell’s House Bill 1371 was the companion bill, approved by the House in early March.)

Read more about Washington state’s distracted driving laws.

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