As of July 23, 2017, Washington's updated distracted driving law is in effect. I love the name, and feel it's an accurate summary of what's really going on when drivers are distracted: Driving Under the Influence of Electronics (E-DUI). Cell phones are like a drug, and impair drivers even worse than drinking does. They do indeed wield a wide influence and many of our best and brightest, namely teenagers, consider themselves addicted to their phones. "The crash risk of using a phone while driving is similar to the risk of driving with a blood alcohol level of .08, and the crash risk for texting while driving is even greater," says Doug Dahl, Whatcom County's manager of Target Zero, which is a coalition of counties in Northwest Washington focused on reducing the number of traffic fatalities to zero.
The law is pretty simple in describing what it takes to stay within it. Don't use your cell phone while you are driving.
Of course there are exceptions, and lawmakers have included four of them:
- Calling emergency services
- Transit operators getting updates from dispatch
- Commercial vehicle operators (Although they still have to obey the existing federal distracted driving law so it's unclear why this is listed as an exception.)
- Emergency responders
The law defines what it means by the electronics in question and their uses, as well as what it means by driving.
Personal Electronic Device: It's not just cell phones. A personal electronic device is anything that can use wi-fi or a cell signal and is not used hands-free (even though hands free doesn't automatically make the device safe, and is shown to be just as dangerous as other electronic devices, but that's another story.) The law lists a few examples of increasingly common devices: tablets, laptops, two-way messaging devices and electronic games.
Driving: The law defines driving quite broadly. If you're between the fog lines then you are considered driving, even if your car is not moving. It's easy to think about what that means in every day driving experience: no texting at stop lights, in traffic jams, or even if you are waiting for a train to pass. However, if you're off the roadway and it's safe to stay there, you can use your PED.
Uses: The lawmakers must have heard from patrol officers who have heard all the excuses from folks they've pulled over. You can't just be holding your phone and expect to get out of the ticket. If it's in your hand while you are "driving" (see above), then you're breaking this law. Interpreted broadly, if you're doing anything with your device other than making a hands-free phone call, it's not allowed. Other actions specifically named on the prohibited list: Compose, send, read, view, access, browse, transmit, save, or retrieve. That about covers what a phone can do nowadays. There's an exception that allows the driver “the minimal use of a finger to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the device.” That pretty much limits the use to tapping or swiping to answer or end a phone call.
The lawmakers were pretty complete on this law as far as distractions go. It's not just about Electronics. There's a section on "driving dangerously distracted." If there is a task that takes drivers' attention from the task of driving, then it's covered here. Grabbing Fido as he tries to leap out of the open window, for example. Or taking a bite of that big juicy hamburger you picked up for lunch. If that distraction causes the driver to break another traffic rule, such as crossing the centerline or fog line or follow the car in front too closely, then the primary ticket could include a fine for distracted driving as well.