Last updated: April 20, 2017
Cell phone/texting news: The “Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act” approved during the 2017 legislative session will hike fines and allow reporting of offenders to their insurance companies. Sponsored by state Sen. Ann Rivers and Rep. Jessyn Farrell, Senate Bill 5289 (and House Bill 1371) will double fines for repeated violations of texting or other uses of a handheld cell phone. Offenses would become moving violations. The House and Senate have both approved the plan and sent it on to Gov. Jay Inslee.
The Farrell-Rivers plan for 2017 also updates the distracted driving laws, which have fallen behind the times. Washington’s Traffic Safety Commission says the laws were groundbreaking a decade ago, but outdated today. The new legislation 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.
- Drivers are prohibited from holding cell phones and other wireless communications devices to their ears.
- Teenage drivers are barred from using all cell phones and other wireless communications devices.
- Drivers are prohibited from text messaging.
Distracted driving fine: $124, more if an accident results (source WSP).
Distracted driving legislation (2017):
Senate Bill 5289: Would rewrite distracted driving law to bar holding of personal electronic devices while driving unless they are in hands-free mode. Cites a list of potential smartphone functions such as composing texts, taking photos and viewing videos. Allows “minimal use of a finger to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the device.” Reclassifies offenses as moving violations. Fines doubled for serial violations. Establishes offense of “driving dangerously distracted,” but with secondary enforcement and fine of $30.
Takes effect Jan. 1. Approved as SSB 5289 by the Transportation Committee on Feb. 21. Approved by the full Senate in a 36-13 vote of March 6. Amended and approved by the House in a 63-35 vote of April 12. ( Changed to make first offense not reportable to insurance.) Amended and approved again by the House in a 61-36 vote of April 19. (Effective date now Jan. 1, 2019.) Approved again by the Senate in a 39-10 vote of April 19. To the governor. (Rivers)
House Bill 1371: Companion to SB 5289, above. Approved as SHB 1371 by the Transportation Committee on Feb. 15. Approved by the House Committee on Transportation on April 4. Approved by the full House in a 52-45 vote of March 7. (Farrell)
Distracted driving notes (2017):
Shelly Baldwin, legislative liaison for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, says there is “just a swirling vortex of people who want” to see a distracted driving law update to succeed in 2017. House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn told the Seattle Times an update law had better chances of success because lawmakers are more familiar with the issue.
Both Rep. Jessyn Farrell and Sen. Ann Rivers saw their distracted driving measures advance but ultimately fall short in recent years.
2016 distracted driving notes:
A roadway worker has died a half year after being hit by an alleged distracted driver. Cody Meyer, a flagger, died May 24. The driver reportedly admitted to making phone calls and checking for messages before hitting Meyer, 23. The driver, Andrew Richwine, faces a vehicular homicide charge.
State Rep. Jessyn Farrell filed legislation to update the distracted driving law. Her HB 2574 would have doubled fines for repeat offenders, but that provision was removed in committee. The Farrell plan bars reading or entering data into a handheld communications device, and so would cover many uses of smartphones, such as accessing social media.
2016 distracted driving legislation:
House Bill 2574: General rewrite of state distracted driving law. Would prohibit a driver from reading or manually entering data on a handheld communications device.
Doubles fines for serial offenders. Specifies that first offenders are not to be reported to insurance companies. Adds distracted driving questions to driver’s exam. Allows for device use at stop lights, in self-driving vehicles and allows some uses by commercial drivers. Approved by the House Transportation Committee (as substitute) on Feb. 9. Retained for special session. (Farrell)
2015 distracted driving legislation:
(Substitute) Senate Bill 5656: Would prohibit use of handheld communications devices while driving to include most forms of electronic data manipulation. Doubles distracted driving fine for serial offenders (within five years). Would supersede any local laws. Adds distracted driving questions to driver’s exam quiz. Would take effect Aug. 1, 2015. Approved as substitute bill by the Transportation Committee on Feb. 27. Approved by the full Senate in a 35-14 vote of March 10. Died in House Transportation Committee as vote deadline passed. (Rivers/Transportation Committee)
2015 distracted driving notes:
Cell phones were linked to 521 crashes in 2014, the State Patrol reports.
The Senate voted March 10 to expand the electronic distracted driving laws to outlaw most forms of data retrieval and transmission by handheld devices. But the House Transportation Committee’s deadline for a vote came and went, and the legislation is dead for the year. The panel’s chairwoman said the votes weren’t there for the bill.
State Sen. Ann Rivers wrote the original bill. “We have to do something to send a message that we value traffic safety,” says Rivers, sponsor of legislation updating the state’s distracted driving law, which dates back to 2007. Senate Bill 5656, introduced in late January, used language that covered smartphone activities such as accessing social media and using email.
No one spoke against the bill at a hearing Feb. 9, but representatives for AT&T asked that the bill be clarified to ensure drivers could still make hands-free calls.
In Seattle, police handed out 2,249 tickets for handheld cell phone violations in 2014. That’s on top of 99 tickets for texting & driving.
State Sen. Ann Rivers, sponsor of the 2015 distracted driving overhaul, says: “People need to just hang up and drive, or not text and drive, or not look at their email and drive. It’s really a lot about sending a public message and waking people up.”
One goal of the Rivers-sponsored legislation is to bring Washington state in line with federal DOT guidelines “to ensure that the maximum amount of federal funds” are available for safety programs about distracted driving.
2014 distracted driving notes:
Read a report on the push for new Washington distracted driving laws.
The state Traffic Safety Commission posted an online video featuring footage of officers making traffic stops while trying to enforce the texting law. One driver says she was entering GPS data; another guy says he was viewing currency-trading info. Not texting. Officers say their hands are tied under the current law. View the Washington state texting video.
An attempt to update Washington’s outdated distracted driving laws failed in the Senate last session. It was sponsored by outgoing state Sen. Tracey Eide. “There’s a stakeholder group supporting SB 6227 and they are searching for another senator to reintroduce the bill next year,” her executive assistant told HandsFreeInfo in mid-October.
Distracted driving restrictions are losing a supporter with the retirement of state Sen. Tracey Eide, who won’t be running for re-election for the new biennium legislative term. She served in the legislature for 18 years. The Federal Way Democrat “may be remembered most for her successful efforts to keep drivers from texting and phoning on state roads,” the News Tribune said.
The Washington State Patrol supports the legislative push to update the distracted driving laws. “The problem is holding the phone,” WSP spokesman Bob Calkins told the Olympian. “When you’re driving, you should be driving — not checking your email, not checking Facebook, not texting.” The interest in updated Washington state distracted driving laws is inspired, in part, by a desire for federal funding that would support safety education programs. The state is not eligible because of the outdated wording, which simply bans text messaging and the holding of cell phones to the driver’s ear.
State Sen. Tracey Eide previously pushed through the laws that made text messaging and holding a cell phone while driving primary offenses. She tried again, unsuccessfully, in 2014 with with legislation that would bar drivers from holding wireless communications devices in any way. The restriction would have applied to any use in roadways, including while temporarily stopped at red lights or stop signs. Eide’s plan also sought double fines for serial offenders. A second conviction within five years would have brought a $248 fine. “You being behind the wheel of a car scares the heck out of me when you’’re using these devices,” Eide told NW News. This is Eide’s last term.
The State Patrol handed out 1,216 texting citations in 2013.
Distracted driving legislation (2014):
Senate Bill 6227: Would specify that drivers may not hold wireless communications devices. Includes temporary stops while at red lights or stop signs. Would double fines for repeat offenders of electronic distracted driving laws, to $248. Applies with second conviction within five years. Mandates distracted driving questions on license exams. Numerous miscellaneous changes to distracted driving statute. Died in the Senate. (Elde)
2013 distracted driving notes:
An observational study of drivers in Washington found that 8 percent were busy with cell phones or similar electronic devices. About half of those were text messaging while driving.
The study totaled observations of 7,800 drivers at intersections in King, Snohomish, Pierce, Spokane, Yakima and Whatcom counties. One in 12 were distracted by electronic devices, said Beth Ebel, head of the public safety study, conducted in summer 2012. Ebel said in September: “These findings suggest that distracted driving is more common than we thought and that texting has become a major cause of distraction.”
Ebel, a medical doctor, said the Washington distracted driving study was needed to measure progress in the three years since drivers’ use of handheld devices was banned in the state. It is part of a broader state study of the effects of law enforcement on electronic distracted driving.
State troopers cited more than 1,000 drivers in 2012 for texting while behind the wheel. More than 6,600 others were ticketed for gabbing on handheld cell phones — meaning the devices were used without a hands-free feature or attachment.
The Washington State Patrol says drivers who are poking along in traffic because they’re busy text messaging are clogging the state’s roads and highways.
The WSP said backups caused by texting drivers “impede traffic, frustrate other drivers, and impact the state’s economy by interfering with freight mobility.” The “guidance” of July 15, 2013, was unusual in that the State Patrol admitted it didn’t have data to back up its concerns, but felt strongly enough about its observations to issue the alert.
“You and I are sitting in traffic, going nowhere, because someone ahead of us was texting,” said WSP Chief John Batiste. “We think texting is a factor in far more of these minor collisions than we’ll ever be able to prove.”
Many law enforcement agencies in the state cracked down on electronic distracted driving between May 20 and June 2. The sweep in Spokane, Whitman, Pend Oreille and Ferry counties is supported by Washington’s Target Zero vehicle safety campaign. Officers will be looking for drivers who text message or use handheld cell phones. Last year’s crackdown netted 1,059 cell phone tickets.
The Washington State Patrol says it isn’t sure how many texting while driving collisions are occurring, since typically they cause only minor property damage. “We do not have the legal authority to get search warrants for cell phone records in cases of minor collisions,” WSP Chief John Batiste says. “Our priority in those cases is to get traffic moving again.”
No significant distracted driving legislation was filed for the 2012-2013 sessions. One successful 2013 bill clarifies that commercial drivers cannot use handheld devices or text message while temporarily stopped — as in at a traffic light — but must pull to the side of the road.
The Metropolitan King County Council has created the traffic offense of “inattentive driving.” It went into effect with the new year. The state already prohibits most forms of electronic distracted driving, but the county law adds activities such as eating, wrangling children, putting on make-up and eating.
The King County law calls for secondary enforcement and fines of $124. It was approved Nov. 5, 2012. Distracted driving killed 122 people in King County between 2004 and 2008, safety researchers reported. Seattle is the county seat.
2013 distracted driving legislation:
House Bill 1752: Specifies that drivers cannot use handheld devices while stopped temporarily, but must be pulled to the side of the road. Brings state distracted driving laws regarding commercial drivers into compliance with federal regulations. Approved by the Senate in a unanimous vote of April 15 and by the House in a unanimous vote of March 5. Signed by the governor May 14. (Licensing Department request)
Senate Bill 5847: Would establish that distracted driving data collected in accident reports cannot be used in legal actions against government bodies. (King)
SB 5590: Companion bill to HB 1752, above. Approved by the Transportation Department on Feb. 21. Extended into the special session. (Elde)
Washington cell phone, texting notes (2012):
Washington’s upgrade to primary enforcement has been good for the traffic ticket stats: The number of distracted driving citations is more than five times as high since the law changed, the Highway Patrol said. That’s 6,850 tickets from mid-June 2010 to mid-May 2011, compared with 1,344 in the same stretch of time beginning in 2009. Texting and using handheld cell phones have received primary enforcement since June 2010.
The Washington Traffic Safety Commission says 1,300 crashes were linked to electronic distracted driving from 2006 to 2010. Between 2004 and 2008, distracted driving in Washington State contributed to 758 deaths. In the period 1998-2007, 18 percent of fatal crashes were blamed on “inattention.” The commission points out that collision data collected by crash investigators significantly underreports driver distraction.
2012 distracted driving legislation:
House Bill 2736: Would separate commercial and “noncommercial” drivers with regard to text messaging law. Specifies that the driver of a commercial motor vehicle can text while pulled off to the side of the road with the motor on or off. Defines texting as a “serious traffic violation.” Amended and approved by the House Committee on Transportation on Feb. 6 (amendment removed exemption for some school bus drivers). Approved by the House in a 95-0 vote taken Feb. 11. “Reintroduced and retained” April 11 but not approved. (Department of Licensing via Hansen)
Senate Bill 6534: Companion bill to HB 2736, above. (Department of Licensing via Eide):
HB 1103: Revises wording of state prohibitions on video devices in vehicles. Ban would apply only to use of video devices visible to the driver, with the exception of live images of vehicle backing up. Approved by the House in a 90-3 vote on Feb. 22, and then amended and approved by the Senate in a 48-0 vote April 1. The House concurred April 18 (97-0) and the bill was signed by the governor May 16. Law took effect July 22, 2011. (Kristiansen)
Washington State Senate Bill 6345: Would make text messaging and holding a cell phone to the ear while driving primary offenses, toughening the existing state law. Also would prohibit drivers with instruction permits or intermediate licenses from using cell phones or text messaging. Fine of $124. Companion bill to HB 2635, below. Approved by the state Senate on Feb. 5, 2010, and then by the House Transportation Committee on Feb. 24. Approved by the full House on March 3, but without the primary enforcement status for adult cell phone violations. On March 6, the Senate rejected the House’s watered-down version of the bill and sent it back to representatives. The House agreed to the Senate’s version on March 11 and the measure was signed Gov. Chris Gregoire on March 26. Latest action: Primary enforcement of the Washington state distracted driving law began June 10. (Eide)
Washington State House Bill 2635: Companion bill to SB 6345, above. Fine of $124. Heard in House Transportation Committee on Jan. 18. (Carlyle)
Washington cell phone, texting notes (pre-2012):
Texting and using handheld cell phones while driving were targeted with primary enforcement as of June 10, 2010. The Washington state House and Senate butted heads over the plan to toughen existing distracted driving laws, but the measure finally was approved and signed by the governor.
An insurance company poll of Washington state drivers found 83 percent supported the current $124 fine for texting while driving or thought it should be higher. Only 11 percent thought the fine was too high. The poll by PEMCO reported that up to 80 percent of the state’s drivers are unaware that distracted driving tickets are not part of their driving records. “Perhaps that’s not a bad misperception, if it discourages almost half of all drivers from texting and talking,” a PEMCO spokesman said Aug. 18.
Drivers ticketed for handheld cell phone use in the three weeks after the new law took effect could be in for a dismissal and refund. The fault lies with the Washington State Department Of Licensing, which failed to update its register of motor traffic laws. Affected jurisdictions include Federal Way, Olympia, Bremerton, Puyallup and Lacey. Tickets issued there between June 10 and July 1 (2010) are eligible for dismissal upon request by the driver.
The Washington State Patrol said it issued 670 tickets to distracted drivers in the 20 days after the tougher penalties went into effect June 10, 2010. Cell phone use brought 633 tickets and texting resulted in 34. About 500 warnings also were issued in that period.
The 2008 distracted driving law has lowered the number of accidents attributed to handheld electronic devices, the State Patrol says.
State Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, saw her bill approved by the Senate and House, but the upgrade to primary enforcement for violations of the adult cell phone ban initially was defeated in the House. Representatives reconsidered on March 11 and the plan went to the governor, who signed it March 26.
“I’ve fought for this for 10 years, and sometimes I thought this day would never come,” Eide said after the bill cleared the Legislature. “Maybe now people will pay attention to their driving instead of their conversations.”
Eide led the Senate in rejecting the House’s new version, in an unusual Saturday session March 6.
After the Senate passed SB 6345, she said: “It’s becoming an epidemic, people are not paying attention, and it’s extremely serious.” The vote was 33-15.
Eide sponsored the state’s 2008 hands-free law for cell phone use.
In 2009, more than 1,600 tickets were written for violations of the handheld cell phone ban, the state patrol said. About 230 people received tickets for texting while driving.
Eide’s bill also would cover primary enforcement for text messaging while driving and eliminate cell phone use entirely for drivers with learners permits or intermediate licenses. has the companion bill, HB 2635.
During SB 6345 debate in the Senate Transportation Committee, a student crossing guard testified as to the dangers of his job due to adult drivers distracted by their cell phones.
“Studies show that texting drivers are as dangerous on the road as drivers with a blood-alcohol level of .16 — twice the legal limit,” Eide said in a statement. “When you consider that two-thirds of teen drivers say they text and drive, we’ve got a critical public-safety issue on our hands. We need to strengthen our laws.”
In testimony before the House Transportation committee on Jan. 18, HB 2635 sponsor Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said: “In Washington state, 97 percent aware (driver cell-phoning and text messaging are) against the law, but it is flouted because it’s a secondary offense.” State Patrol Chief John Batiste testified in favor of the bill, likening the offenses to drunk driving.
The fine for using a cell phone without a hands-free device is $124, but drivers must have committed another infraction to get that ticket. (See 2010 legislation, above.)
One year after the cell phone driving law took effect, the State Patrol reported these numbers: 4,939 drivers were stopped for use of handheld cell phones and 1,659 were ticketed. The majority of stops resulted in warnings. For text messaging, the State Patrol said 577 drivers were pulled over and 221 tickets were written. The number of collisions attributed to use of handheld devices fell from 1,118 (2007) to 827.
The 2009 Legislature adjourned on April 26, 2009. No bills concerning cell phones or text messaging were considered.
Washington state drivers’ attitudes about the cell phone driving law are being tracked by the insurance company PEMCO. In February 2008, before the law went into effect, a poll of drivers found that 60 percent of them believed motorists’ use of a handheld cell phone should be a primary offense. Three months after the law took effect, 50 percent replied that should be a primary offense.
“Perhaps not surprising, younger drivers are significantly more likely than their older counterparts to prefer that the law remains a secondary offense,” the PEMCO pollsters reported. “For their part, younger drivers are also more likely to admit that they talk on the phone only if they don’t see a law enforcement person nearby (19 percent versus 4 percent).”
Texting law leader: Washington was among the first six states to outlaw text messaging while driving. As of summer 2009, 14 states have adopted texting bans for motorists.
The prohibition of using hands for cell phone use while driving was signed by the governor in May 2007.