Drivers in Washington state will have put down their cellphones, under a law that goes into effect Sunday. And coffee. And mascara.
The state's new law to discourage distracted driving closes loopholes against making calls by prohibiting even holding a personal electronic device while stopped in traffic. The law also prohibits eating or applying make-up while driving.
The Governors Highway Safety Association called the law a pioneering effort to combat distracted driving, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said was involved in more than 3,000 deaths in 2014.
“Washington State was first state to pass a texting ban a decade ago, and they are leading the way again with this strengthened law, which has the potential to be a game changer and serve as a model for other states,” Kara Macek, a spokeswoman for the governors association.
The change comes too late for Michael Nicknovich, whose girlfriend died last year when her car was hit by a distracted driver along Interstate 5 near Chehalis, Wash. Jody Bagnariol, 63, and her passenger, Elisabeth Rudolf, 50, died in the crash when another driver on the highway posed for a photo taken by her passenger.
"Two lives are lost because another woman was taking selfies at 76 mph on cruise control," Nickinovich said.
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia ban the use of hand-held phones while driving, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. And 44 states and D.C. ban texting while driving.
But none ban the use of hands-free devices entirely.
The Washington State law makes it illegal for a driver to hold an electronic device in even when stopped at an intersection or in traffic, which closes loopholes in other state laws. Fines start at $136 for the first offense and $234 for the second, and will be reported to the driver’s insurance company and will appear on the driver’s record.
Drivers were distracted in crashes that killed 3,179 people in 2014, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Distractions such as dialing or texting tripled the risk of a crash, according to NHTSA.
The National Transportation Safety Board has named distracted driving as one of the 10 most important safety issues to remedy, after finding personal electronics caused or contributed to 11 accidents that killed 50 people and injured 259 since 2003. But NTSB doesn’t investigate many highway accidents.
Distractions are growing. Nearly 30% of drivers surveyed in 2015 admitted accessing the internet while driving, according to a State Farm survey, compared to just 13% in 2009.
"We had a lot of issues with Pokemon Go, people checking their email and GPS," said Bremerton Police Officer Steven Forbragd, who pulled over to answer a call from a Kitsap Sun reporter. "Now everything will be hands free."
A 2015 Washington Traffic Safety Commission study found that 1 in 10 drivers were distracted in some way while on the road, and that 70 percent of those observed were using their phone.
"We have a lot of rear-end collisions that have a lot to do with people looking down to see a text," he said.
Other provisions in the Washington law bar eating, putting on make-up and shaving, which can cause a car to drift across lanes in traffic. These secondary offenses carry $99 fines, which may still not be enough to deter some motorists.
"I still do my hair while I'm driving, but only because you hear about being getting hurt from texting and driving," said Zach Kostick, 19, of Port Orchard, who sports a man-bun. "You never really hear about people getting into accidents for doing their hair."
Holding a phone to call 911 or emergency services will remain legal in Washington. Although the law prohibits "holding a personal electronic device in either hand or both hands" to use a device, it does allow "the minimal use of a finger to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the device."
"Before this law, the only things people could get a ticket for were texting and holding the phone up to their ear," said Trooper Russ Winger of the Washington State Patrol. "Now we can pull someone over for having any electronics in their hand."
Troopers will pull over any driver seen holding their phone. But for the first six months the new law is in place, troopers will not issue tickets for distracted driving, giving drivers time to adjust, Winger said.
"I believe this law will change drivers' behaviors because now they have consequences for their actions, with the monetary fine and ticket potentially increasing their insurance rates," he said.
Angie Ward, a program manager for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, is skeptical that the new law will change everyone's driving habits, but said it's a start.
"We know this rule won't magically change things," Ward said. "If we can decrease fatalities even 1 or 2 percent, that will make all of this worth it."
Contributing: Kitsap Sun.
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