Washington state was an innovator seven years ago when it came to banning texting while driving.
But as technology has marched on, the state’s distracted driving laws haven’t, leaving Washington with laws that apply to flip phones rather than iPhones.
State officials are now pushing for the Legislature to update the state’s distracted driving statutes when lawmakers reconvene in January, partly so the state can become eligible for certain federal highway safety grants.
The problem? Today’s law in Washington “doesn’t preclude you from looking at Facebook or the Internet as you’re driving,” said Darrin Grondel, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.
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“That technology wasn’t available when our statute was drafted,” Grondel said.
Washington passed the nation’s first ban on texting while driving in 2007, a few months before Apple released its first-generation iPhone.
Yet as Washington’s law stands today, only sending text messages and talking with a phone to one’s ear are explicitly banned while driving. That means drivers are allowed to check email, surf the Internet and even send instant messages on a phone while operating a vehicle.
The texting prohibitions also apply only while a car is moving, meaning nothing stops drivers from texting while at a stoplight or stop sign.
Grondel’s agency wants to update the law to say drivers can use mobile devices only when a car is pulled off the road, in a position where the vehicle can remain stationary.
Additionally, the traffic safety commission is proposing to ban any form of holding a phone while driving. Right now, actions such as holding a phone at a distance and using the speakerphone aren’t against the law.
“Obviously we don’t see much difference in the distraction level there,” said Bob Calkins, spokesman for the Washington State Patrol. “Fundamentally, the problem is holding the phone.”
“When you’re driving you should be driving — not checking your email, not checking Facebook, not texting,” Calkins said.
The Washington Traffic Safety Commission attempted to get the changes passed this year, but the legislation failed to come to the floor of the state Senate for a vote. Grondel said he is hoping that the legislation will move further next year.
If the Legislature approves the proposed changes, the state would be eligible for additional federal funds designed to help states pay for distracted driving education and enforcement campaigns.
In the 2014 fiscal year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration made $23.1 million available to states as part of its Distracted Driving Grant program. Washington was not eligible to receive funding due to the gaps in its distracted driving laws, according to the traffic safety commission. The agency estimates Washington’s share of that could have been $500,000.
The Washington State Patrol backed the changes the traffic safety commission proposed this year, and also is in favor of of the updates being proposed for next year’s legislative session, Calkins said.
“What is being proposed seems very clean: If the phone is in your hand, that’s a violation. We certainly support that,” Calkins said.