If Washington’s first drunk driving laws had been developed at the same lurching pace as today’s distracted driving laws, the political debates of that era would have been absurd, indeed.
What if legislators of the 1900s had criminalized driving under the influence of moonshine, but decided they couldn’t keep up with all the new brands of beer, wine and spirits, nor fight their rising popularity? What if they got bogged down arguing whether drivers who consume alcohol are significantly more impaired than those pumped full of warm milk or herbal tea?
It’s a fictitious scenario, and a rather silly one. But it helps make a point about the disjointed approach Washington lawmakers have taken in recent years to regulate the diverse and growing use of personal electronic devices behind the wheel.
Everyone from traffic cops to trauma doctors say distracted driving is quickly catching up to drunk driving as a leading threat to public health, and that a smartphone can be every bit as intoxicating as a whiskey bottle.
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From 2014 to 2015, traffic deaths attributed to distracted driving rose from 130 to 171 — a nearly 32 percent increase, more than any other accident cause. A statewide observational survey of 300 intersections found that 1 in 10 drivers were distracted, and 70 percent were engaged with a cellphone.
Yet Washington’s decade-old cellphone law hasn’t kept up. State leaders have been caught flatfooted by technology, slow to confront the black hole of phone calls, texts, social media posts, video streams, selfies and the next frontier in portable gadgetry, whatever it might be. They’ve wasted time arguing whether phones are significantly more distracting for drivers than radios, passengers, lipstick or french fries.
On Wednesday, legislators took an overdue step into the digital age. The House Transportation Committee approved a bill prohibiting the use of any handheld electronic device for any purpose while driving, with limited exceptions such as a finger stroke to activate a navigation system. Right now, the law only bans texting and phone calls in which a wireless device is clearly held to a driver’s ear.
If the bill makes it all the way through the Legislature — and that is no sure thing — drivers will lose their tacit permission to download apps at 35 mph. No more checking Facebook feeds at stop lights, or indulging in a Netflix binge on a cross-state car trip.
Of course, tech-savvy drivers can be surreptitious, firing off a terse text or sneaky tweet from a device in their lap. House Bill 1371 won’t change habits overnight. No law could, except perhaps requiring repeat offenders to have an interlock ignition device that shuts down personal devices.
Public safety stewards will be frustrated until traffic culture takes a dramatic, life-saving turn, as it did in the last half century with seat belts and alcohol. They’ll be frustrated until the public stops buying what the Washington Traffic Safety Commission calls “the great multi-tasking lie.” HB1371 contains enough loopholes to continue their frustration.
But it also has a key provision doubling the fine for a second offense of distracted driving. This would put needed bite into the law and make some people think twice before violating it. (Increasing the $136 penalty for a first offense, and including it on driver records for insurance purposes, would be even more effective.)
While distracted driving is not the exclusive domain of the young, those in their teens and 20s are more prone to dumb behavior with a smartphone. State traffic safety data backs that up, and one woman who testified at a House Transportation hearing last week underscored the point.
"We're raising a generation of kids that don't know a life without it, and we have to do something now to make them understand that it's a tool to be used at an appropriate time, and that time is never when you're behind the wheel of a vehicle,” said Gina Bagnariol-Benavides of Auburn.
She should know. Her sister and a friend were killed last July while stopped in traffic on Interstate 5 near Chehalis. They were rear ended by a young couple with cruise control set at 76 mph, moments after the couple had snapped a selfie.
Victims and survivors are crying out for firm action and more education. They are joined by insurance companies, road construction workers and many others who know better than to believe the great lie. Let’s hope this is the year legislators put their own distractions aside.