WASHINGTON STATE - Recently Puget Sound motorist Mick Alsos asked the Seattle PI the following questions, "I notice many police officers from each city and Washington State Patrolmen on the freeways driving while talking on cell phones with no hands-free devices. Are these cell phones being used for personal business? Are the officers expected to use these for police business? Are police officers exempt from the laws we are expected to abide by? The cell phone law is a good law."
WSP spokesman and former Peninsula resident and WSP sergeant in Pacific County answers, "Supposedly. Yes. And yes." He says, "Police officers are exempt from the hands-free law which took effect July 1. I am asking observers not to assume that just because a trooper is on a cell phone, he or she is on a personal call."
Williams explains, "Troopers are sometimes contacted by our dispatch centers via cell phone to direct them to areas and situations that we do not necessarily broadcast over the radio, such as bomb squad or SWAT situations." He says, "There are other times when our radio frequencies are overcrowded with directing troopers to collisions and other emergencies. At those times the communication centers will utilize cell phones to relay information."
Williams says, "I believe the Legislature exempted law enforcement from the requirement to give officers another tool to use in their work, the cell phone." He added, "WSP headquarters did send out the reminder to all employees to set a good example (of following the cell phone law) whenever possible."
Pacific County Sheriff John Didion says, "We tell our officers to follow the law as much as they can, but they are emergency personnel and are exempt from the law. The cell phone is one more tool we can use in law enforcement. The key thing is safety for our officers and for the public."
Long Beach Police Chief Flint Wright adds, "We probably have about 30 percent emergency calls on the cell phones and 70 percent are from dispatch that require attention right away. Could we pull over more than we do, speaking for myself I have to admit that maybe we could."
Wright concludes, "We will address the cell phone situation and try to improve efforts to be good examples by pulling over when we can to talk on the cell phone." He acknowledged that emergency situations do not require pulling to the side of the road to talk on the cell phone, but that should an accident occur there could be repercussions for the officers involved if they were on their cell phone.
An earlier Chinook Observer story stated that to put a cell phone to your ear while driving in Washington could net a $124 fine, beginning July 1. Use of a headset or speaker-phone system is not against the law, however WSP Chief John R. Batiste says, "When you're driving you need to be driving. We'd prefer that drivers didn't talk on their cell phones at all. But if you must, please stay safe by using a headset or speaker-phone."
The law applies only to drivers, not passengers. There is also an exemption for drivers calling 911 to report an emergency. CB radios or other communications devices that are not held up to the ear are also exempt. "The key is whether the device is held up to the ear," Batiste said. "That's what our troopers will be watching for."
Failure to use a headset or speaker-phone is considered a secondary violation, which means troopers cannot stop a motorist for that alone. But troopers will not hesitate to cite if they also see some other violation such as weaving across lanes.
In some U.S. cities the act of text messaging while walking is also now prohibited because of accidents and injuries that have happened to pedestrians while "texting." Text messaging is not known to be against the law in any city in Washington at this time, but the bottom line is when driving, drive and when walking, walk. The laws are for safety and not to pick on the police. If an officer is calling to come to your aid or to the aid of someone you love, it's likely you won't get upset if he driving responsibly and using his cell phone.
As for the use of hand-held Blackberries - they are ripening a bit slower than normal this year.