Politics & Government

Cell phone use behind wheel would go on driver’s record, under legislative proposal

State officials are not only looking to update the state’s distracted driving laws to apply to smartphones, they also want to make sure using a phone while driving goes on a person’s driving record.

A proposal being considered by the Legislature would make it illegal to send emails, use phone apps or browse the Internet while driving. Right now, only sending text messages or holding a phone to one’s ear while operating a vehicle are explicitly banned under state law.

But Senate Bill 5656 would expand the state’s cellphone laws further: Tickets for using a phone while driving would go on a person’s record, and the traffic infractions would become visible to insurance companies and employers.

Current Washington laws treat these infractions like parking violations: The violator pays a fine and the ticket goes away.

Shelly Baldwin, a spokeswoman for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, said Washington needs to change its distracting driving laws to cover all types of handheld devices so the state can qualify for certain federal grants.

Having offenses go on a person’s driving record is another change required by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, she said.

Beyond that, however, state officials think it will make drivers pay more attention to laws barring mobile device use on the road, Baldwin said.

“People understand that while it’s a law, it’s not being taken very seriously,” Baldwin said.

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 commission estimates Washington’s share of that could have been $500,000. Baldwin said the state could be eligible for as much as $2.3 million a year in the future.

The measure before the Legislature would also increase the penalties for repeat offenders. Under current law, drivers texting or talking on a phone without a hands-free device are subject to a $124 fine for each offense.

Senate Bill 5656, which is sponsored by Republican Sen. Ann Rivers of La Center, would increase the penalty for a second offense in five years to $209.

The bill would continue a pattern of steadily tightening rules since Washington’s cellphone driving law went into effect in 2008. It started as a secondary offense; a police officer had to pull a driver over for another reason before giving a ticket for a cellphone violation. In 2010, legislators made it a primary offense.

No one testified against Rivers’ legislation when it was heard Monday before the Senate Transportation Committee.

Representatives of AT&T and an app-based taxi service group said they support the bill, but would like to see the language clarified to ensure people can still make and receive calls in the car using hands-free calling systems.

The proposed rules wouldn’t apply to global positioning systems used for navigation.