New Wash. distracted driving law makes it illegal to hold phone while driving

The law is expected to make things easier for law enforcement officers to determine if drivers are committing violations by, in most cases, restricting drivers from holding their phones completely.


BREMERTON, Wash. — Earlier this month Michael Nickinovich found himself on the side of Interstate 5 near Chehalis, Wash., dedicating a sign memorializing his girlfriend, who died last year after she was hit by a distracted driver on that same stretch of road.

Jody Bagnariol, 63, and her passenger, Elisabeth Rudolf, 50, died in the crash when another driver on the highway posed for a photo taken by her passenger.

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"Two lives are lost because another woman was taking selfies at 76 miles an hour on cruise control," said Nickinovich, who is hopeful for the new distracted driving law, set to take effect Sunday.

The Washington State law makes it illegal for a driver to hold an electronic device in even when stopped at an intersection or in traffic, which closes loopholes in other state laws.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia ban the use of hand-held phones while driving, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. And 44 states and D.C. ban texting while driving.

But none ban the use of hands-free devices entirely. The Washington state law set a fine of $136 for the first offense and $234 for the second, will be reported to the driver’s insurance company and will appear on the driver’s record.

The Governors Highway Safety Association “is very excited about this new aggressive approach. Washington State was first state to pass a texting ban a decade ago, and they are leading the way again with this strengthened law, which has the potential to be a game changer and serve as a model for other states,” Kara Macek, a spokeswoman for the group.

The National Transportation Safety Board has named distracted driving as one of the 10 most important safety issues to remedy, after finding personal electronics caused or contributed to 11 accidents that killed 50 people and injured 259 since 2003. But NTSB doesn’t investigate many highway accidents.

Drivers were distracted in crashes that killed 3,179 people in 2014, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Distractions such as dialing or texting tripled the risk of a crash, according to NHTSA.

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Distractions are growing. Nearly 30% of drivers surveyed in 2015 admitted accessing the internet while driving, according to a State Farm survey, compared to just 13% in 2009.

Other forms of distracted driving prohibited by the Washington state law, such as eating, smoking and grooming will be secondary offenses, with a fine of $99. This may not be enough to deter some.

"I still do my hair while I'm driving but only because you hear about being getting hurt from texting and driving," said Port Orchard resident Zach Kostick, 19, who sports a man-bun. "You never really hear about people getting into accidents for doing their hair."

Those who patrol Kitsap County, Wash. roads say distracted driving is rampant and that the new law will clarify for officers what is considered a violation.

"We had a lot of issues with Pokemon Go, people checking their email and GPS. Now everything will be hands free," said Bremerton Police Officer Steven Forbragd, who pulled over to answer a call from a Kitsap Sun reporter. He has faith this law will change drivers' behavior. He said crashes as a direct result of distracted driving are common.

A 2015 Washington Traffic Safety Commission study found that 1 in 10 drivers were distracted in some way while on the road, and that 70 percent of those observed were using their phone. That inattention can lead to wrecks, Forbragd said.

"We have a lot of rear-end collisions that have a lot to do with people looking down to see a text," he said.

The law is expected to make things easier for law enforcement officers to determine if drivers are committing violations by, in most cases, restricting drivers from holding their phones completely.

A similar law will take effect in Oregon in October.

Holding a phone to call 911 or emergency services will remain legal in Washington. And although the law prohibits "holding a personal electronic device in either hand or both hands" to use a device, it does allow "the minimal use of a finger to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the device."

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This means drivers can't hold their phone while driving, but the phone can rest on the dash or console while the driver uses the touchscreen to answer or hang up calls.

"Before this law, the only things people could get a ticket for were texting and holding the phone up to their ear," said Washington State Patrol Trooper Russ Winger. "Now we can pull someone over for having any electronics in their hand."

Winger believes that drivers continue to use their phones because they think they aren't being monitored.

"I believe this law will change drivers' behaviors because now they have consequences for their actions, with the monetary fine and ticket potentially increasing their insurance rates," he said.

Troopers will pull over any driver seen holding their phone, but for the first six months the new law is in place, troopers will not issue tickets for distracted driving, giving drivers time to adjust, Winger said.

Marsha Masters, of Kitsap County's "Target Zero" task force, believes the majority of drivers will change their behavior and hopes there will be more laws targeting distracted driving in the future.

"There's always going to be room for improvement," she said. "If people would just drive focused and follow the rules, we would have fewer collisions."

Angie Ward, a WTSC program manager, is skeptical that the new law will change everyone's driving habits, but said it's a start.

"We know this rule won't magically change things," Ward said. "On public roads there needs to be rules to show a culture shift in what's deemed acceptable while driving."

She added: "If we can decrease fatalities even 1 or 2 percent, that will make all of this worth it."