Washington’s distracted driving law, formally known as the Driving Under the Influence of Electronics (DUIE) Act has been in effect since July. Many state residents, however, may only see it really take effect this week. A six month grace period that has been part of the law’s implementation is ending, according to a recent article in The Seattle Times.
The paper reports that the grace period was not mandatory, meaning that “some law-enforcement agencies have been ticketing offenders for months… (while) others issued warnings to educate drivers about the law.”
Fines under the Washington law are somewhat lower than those in Oregon: $136 (as opposed to $260) for a first offense and $234 for a second infraction within five years (in Oregon it’s $435).
It is also clear, however, that Washington’s legislature has learned from some of Oregon’s mistakes and attempted to address them up front. Distracted driving has been illegal in Oregon longer than in Washington, but, as I noted in a blog post last fall, too-precise wording and rapid technological advances forced legislators in Salem to go back and make significant changes to the law last year. Here in Oregon, as in many other parts of the country, laws that limited “calls” and “texting” using a “cellphone” were rapidly overtaken by a world in which people use their phones to play games and use handheld gaming devices to make voice and video calls over the internet. Tablets not much larger than a phone can now make ‘calls’ using Skype, WhatsApp or even Facebook. Outdated language in Oregon’s statute meant that until last year many of these things were technically legal.
Just as Oregon’s legislature moved to close these unintended loopholes last year, Washington’s has moved aggressively to get ahead of the curve. As the Times notes, the new Washington law “forbids virtually all use of handheld gadgets such as phones, tablets, laptop computers and gaming devices while driving.” A related article (see link below) explains that “the new bill forbids handheld uses including composing or reading any kind of message, picture or data” as well as the taking of photographs. It also bans putting the phone between your legs and shouting into it – a common practice among people trying to get around laws that specifically target “handheld” devices. Use of a phone mounted in a cradle attached to the dashboard will remain legal in Washington. As is already the case here in Oregon the law forbids any of these uses while the car is temporarily motionless at a stop sign or red light.
As the Times notes, citing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures, “in 2015, 3,477 people nationwide were killed in distracted driving incidents.” That fact is a reminder of how serious this problem remains, despite years of education efforts and stepped-up enforcement.
As a Portland lawyer practicing in both Oregon and Washington I am very happy to see the distracted driving laws on both sides of the Columbia River coming into greater alignment. Let’s hope that the new law in Washington is successful, just as last year’s legislative fixes have been here in Oregon.
RCW 46.61.673: Dangerously Distracted Driving