State police increasing patrols for distracted driving

Local police are on the lookout for distracted drivers who should expect to be pulled over and ticketed. April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, according to the National Safety Council a nonprofit aimed at eliminating preventable deaths. The Washington Traffic Safety Commission is spending the month sending distracted drivers a message by increasing officer patrols for distracted driving. Statewide, nearly 150 law enforcement agencies are looking for distracted drivers, including the Bellevue, Seattle and Mercer Island police departments. According to Bellevue Police Officer Craig Hanaumi, “Distracted driving is a significant issue.”

Mercer Island Police Department Division Commander Leslie Burns explained that police regularly participate in statewide emphasis patrols such as wearing seatbelts and distracted driving. The police are also reacting to recent statistics.

According to Shelly Baldwin, spokesperson for the WTSC, “our distracted driving fatalities have continued to increase. We really need to send a strong message to our drivers that they need to pay attention to their driving. Between 2014 and 2015, our state had a 30 percent increase in traffic crashes that resulted in someone dying.” This mirrors the national trend, where distracted driving caused 3,477 traffic deaths in the U.S. in 2015, a 9 percent increase from the year before, which amounts to “a deadly epidemic,” according to the NSC.

Currently, Washington law prohibits drivers from texting or holding their phone to their ears while driving. Violators pay a $136 minimum fine. State legislators have proposed legislation that would increase penalties for distracted driving. State Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle and Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, are drafting a bill tentatively called the Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act. Although a similar bill passed the Senate but died in the House in 2015, House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island said there is a better chance of updating the distracted driving laws this time. She said bills often take several years before lawmakers become familiar enough to support them.

Burns noted that distracted driving is not simply related to cell phones. “Distracted driving can mean anything from having a dog on your lap that takes your attention away to playing with your radio or CD player,” she said.

Other states are seeking to expand their laws to make all cell phone use while driving illegal and to make penalties harsher. For example, the Oregon legislature is proposing a far tougher crackdown. State Senator Peter Courtney, D-Salem, hopes to treat distraction in the same manner as drunk driving, charging penalties regardless of whether or not there is an accident. He has proposed a minimum $6,000 fine for first time offenders and prison time with up to $125,000 fine for multiple violations. If children are in the car, the offending driver could face stiffer penalties. His bill addresses only mobile device usage while driving however, not other distractions such as eating, applying makeup, reading the newspaper or smoking.

This month’s statewide distracted driving campaign is not new. In 2014, during a similar campaign, citations for illegal cell phone use while driving increased 197 percent, according to the WTSC. As the U.S. Department of Transportation states, “U Text, U Drive, U Pay.”