PENINSULA — Don’t worry, drivers in Washington can still dine behind the wheel or drink coffee to get their caffeine fix without running into trouble with the law, at least most of the time.
The state’s new distracted-driving law took effect on July 23. It has caused some confusion about what people are now allowed to do while driving.
The Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act bans all nonemergency use of hand-held devices. It also prohibits watching videos, even on dash-mounted screens.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have banned hand-held cellphone use while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. However, Washington’s law prohibits use of all hand-held devices entirely, even when drivers are stopped at an intersection or in traffic.
They are allowed one touch or swipe to activate hands-free electronics if the device is built-in or secured in a dashboard holder.
Using hand-held electronics while driving is now a primary traffic offense that comes with $136 ticket. The fine goes up to $234 for a second violation within five years. Offenses go on a driver’s record and are reported to their insurance company.
The confusion about what drivers can and can’t do behind the wheel comes from a section of the new law that treats non-electronic distractions, including eating, drinking, smoking or grooming as secondary offenses. That means police can give drivers a $99 ticket for “dangerous distractions” on top of other fines, if they’re pulled over for a primary traffic violation, such as speeding, changing lanes without signaling or using electronics.
To tack on the $99, officers have to connect a specific distraction, such as eating a cheeseburger, with the primary traffic offense or driving mishap, Washington State Patrol Capt. Monica Alexander said during a media conference call on Friday.
“We would have to articulate how that cheeseburger caused that collision,” she told reporters.
Alexander quickly clarified that she didn’t mean to point the finger an innocent cheeseburger; the driver who was eating it would be to blame.
“The cheeseburger didn’t do anything,” she said.
Officers will consider the “totality of circumstances,” not just whether a driver was eating, applying makeup or holding a dog on their lap, when deciding whether to ticket them for a distraction, Alexander said.
She and other officials emphasized the law now prohibits any activity not related to driving that interferes with safety.
“It’s about the effect on driving — not what you can and can’t do in a car,” Washington Traffic Safety Commission spokeswoman Shelly Baldwin said.
A 2015 study by the commission found one in 10 drivers were distracted on the road in one way or another.
Washington State Patrol Sgt. Brad Moon, who oversees six Naselle-based troopers, told the Observer he plans to determine whether a $99 ticket is warranted by asking drivers if they were distracted by doing other things behind the wheel.
“Most people are honest,” Moon said.
Troopers will focus on educating the public about the new law for the next six months, he said. In most cases, they’ll be giving drivers who are stopped for using electronics warnings, along with information about the changes. However, Moon said, if troopers see “egregious” violations or if a distracted driver causes a collision, they’re likely to get a ticket.
“We’ll try to be conservative but consistent,” he said. “We’re primarily focusing on things people are doing that contribute to poor driving.”
However, not all law enforcement authorities see the new law the same way. Pacific County Sheriff Scott Johnson said he doesn’t expect the new rules for distractions to change much for his deputies.
“We won’t be bothering people for that,” he said.
Johnson said existing law gives them the authority to ticket drivers who cause safety issues because they were eating or drinking on the road so including the distractions in the DUI-E law was unneccessary.
The new law has spurred a campaign to ask the Legislature to reconsider the change. More than 37,775 people have signed a petition on Change.org in support of removing the secondary offenses from the law.
Lawmakers have said the goal was to reduce the number of collisions. Distracted driving was a factor in crashes that killed 3,459 people in 2015, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. That’s almost 10 percent of all traffic fatalities nationwide. Researchers say electronic use isn’t always reported to police after a crash so the actual numbers could be higher.
In Washington, there were 12,399 accidents caused by distracted drivers in 2015, according to the annual state collision summary. Of those crashes, 895 were caused by a driver who was using an electronic device.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found activities such as dialing or texting while on the road triples the risk of an accident.
“Driving is the most dangerous thing most of us do on a daily basis,” Alexander, the WSP captain, said. “We need to be paying attention.”