Don’t be confused, just order burger with side of road alertness

How does Washington’s revised distracted driving law work? Police can pull you over for the phone to the ear, but not for the burger eating by itself.
How does Washington’s revised distracted driving law work? Police can pull you over for the phone to the ear, but not for the burger eating by itself. MCT illustration

She’s putting on makeup. He’s lighting a cigarette. An older woman cradles a dachsund in her lap, while a younger woman texts. One driver eats, another drinks, another gestures dramatically with both hands while trying to make a point to a bored-looking passenger.

And the pièce de résistance: A woman pulls her hair back in a ponytail while accelerating away from a stoplight with no hands on the wheel.

Less than one minute of video from a single Pierce County intersection is all it takes to highlight some creative ways that drivers can potentially be distracted. News Tribune photographer Peter Haley deftly stitched together a 55-second series of scenes he recently observed on Meridian Avenue on Puyallup’s South Hill.

What jumps out is the ordinary nature of human inattentiveness. Chances are, you’ll do at least one of these activities during your commute today.

Last weekend, a sensible new Washington law went into effect that should make drivers think twice before grabbing a cellphone, a ponytail scrunchie or a handful of fries.

The principal part of the law — the section that police appropriately say they’ll enforce most rigorously — bans drivers from calling, texting or otherwise manipulating a personal electronic device.

Surprisingly, it’s the lesser part of the law, which deals with other potentially distracting behaviors, that has sent thousands of confused Washingtonians around the bend, like a caravan of cars that missed a “Wrong Way” sign.

As of Thursday, more than 38,000 people had signed an online petition demanding a rewrite of the new law, based on the false claim that “now you cannot eat or drink in your car while driving.”

Relax, folks. Section 3 of the law defines a “dangerously distracted” driver as one “who engages in any activity not related to the actual operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of such motor vehicle on any highway.” (Italicized emphasis ours.)

The first 15 words must be read in the context of the next 16 words. Officer Friendly can’t give a ticket simply by catching you red-handed with a Big Mac (darn ketchup drips); he must have cause to believe holding said burger made you drive like a bozo.

A cop also can’t pull you over just because he sees your hand in a fast food bag. This part of the law is a secondary offense, meaning you can’t be stopped unless you committed another infraction. (Although you can be stopped for having your hand on a cell phone. That part is a primary offense.)

Most law enforcement agencies are giving even more reason to relax: They say they’ll only issue warnings for the first several months.

To a certain degree, the public has to trust police will use their discretion wisely. Tacoma, for instance, already has an obscure ordinance that outright prohibits the consumption of food and beverages while driving. Have you ever heard of it being enforced?

“I have cited one person for eating while driving,” Tacoma police spokeswoman Loretta Cool told The News Tribune last year. “I cited them for distracted driving as they crossed the lane line several times, and I could see it was food they were attempting to eat causing the problem.”

Sounds like a down-to-earth blueprint for how the new law will be implemented statewide.

One final section is worth noting: All money collected from motorists cited for the secondary offense must be deposited into a state distracted-driving prevention account. Educating the public about the law will be a chief purpose for these funds.

To which we say: Bravo. A broad public outreach campaign — such as billboards, media ads and driver’s license renewal mailers — can’t start soon enough.

We’re aware of more than 38,000 people who need to be set straight.