Politics & Government

Crashes prompt renewed push to strengthen distracted-driving laws

A bill to expand the state’s ban on using a cellphone while driving appeared dead in the Legislature in early April.

But since then, at least two major traffic accidents have been linked to cellphone use, and supporters of tougher distracted-driving laws hope that those crashes could prompt lawmakers to see the need for change.

On May 5, a driver who dropped a cellphone caused a pileup that closed all lanes of northbound Interstate 5 in downtown Seattle. Another driver looking at a cellphone April 13 veered into oncoming traffic in Kent, killing a woman and injuring two others.

The state’s ban on cellphone use while driving prohibits only sending or reading text messages, or holding a phone to one’s ear and talking while driving. Senate Bill 5656 would expand the prohibition to include browsing the Internet, checking Facebook and any other smartphone activity while operating a vehicle. Using a cellphone with a hands-free device would still be permitted.

It looks unlikely that the Legislature would revisit the legislation at this point, as lawmakers are in the middle of a second special session to try to decide a state operating budget. Still, Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center and the bill’s sponsor, says she’s still pushing for the bill to pass before the Legislature adjourns for good.

“Since the end of the regular session, we of course have had more fatalities caused by distracted driving,” Rivers said. “I think there’s renewed interest, and hopefully we’ll be able to capitalize on that.”

Shelly Baldwin, spokeswoman for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, said she also hopes lawmakers will reconsider Rivers’ bill in light of the recent accidents in Seattle and Kent.

“We believe it would reduce congestion, as well as crashes,” Baldwin said.

The legislation would double the fine if a driver has more than one cellphone-use-while-driving infraction in five years, and require those repeated violations to be reported to insurance companies. Right now, tickets for cellphone use aren’t reported, and don’t go on a driver’s record.

The bill cleared the state Senate but didn’t advance out of the House Transportation Committee during the Legislature’s regular 105-day session. House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, didn’t return a reporter’s calls for comment about the bill this week.

During the bill’s House Transportation hearing in March, some committee members questioned whether the Legislature should target all types of distracted driving – including eating and putting on makeup in the car – instead of focusing only on phones.

Supporters of Senate Bill 5656 said they are mainly trying to update the state’s existing cellphone-while-driving ban, which the Legislature approved a few months before the first iPhone debuted in 2007.

“Our current law is definitely written for older technology,” Baldwin said.

If lawmakers don’t pass the legislation this year, Rivers said she will work to get it passed next year.