Washington law and distracted driving: Changes in 2018

Distracted driving laws in Washington recently changed.

Washington lawmakers recently enacted the Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act. The law makes it illegal to hold an electronic device while operating a vehicle. Lawmakers wrote the law to go into effect on January 1, 2019. The governor significantly shortened this timeline. The law ultimately went into effect in July of 2017.

Some jurisdictions allowed a six-month transitional period and issued a warning to drivers in violation of this law. Other jurisdictions were not as lenient and began issuing tickets for violations immediately.

What does this new law achieve? Texting while driving was already illegal in Washington. This law makes it illegal to have a phone in your hand for any type of activity. This is true while the vehicle is in motion or completely stopped at a traffic light.

The law defines a personal electronic device as "any portable electronic device that is capable of wireless communication or electronic data retrieval and is not manufactured primarily for hands-free use in a motor vehicle." This includes cell phones and tablets as well as gaming and messaging devices.

The language within the law is also very specific on the definition of the term "use." It states that a "use" includes holding the device as well as the use of a hand or single finger to "compose, send, read, view, access, browse, transmit, save or retrieve email, text messages, instant messages, photographs, or other electronic data." The term also includes watching of a video on the device.

What are the penalties for a violation of the new law? Violators will face a $136 fine for a first offense and $234 for the second.

It is important to note that the use of a handheld device while driving is now a primary offense. That means an officer can pull a driver over if the officer observes the driver in violation of the law. The law does not consider every distraction a primary offense. Unless other reasons are available to support a stop, a driver can generally not be stopped for eating or grooming while driving.

How effective is the new law? A recent report in The Seattle Times notes that 6,475 drivers were cited for a violation within the first six months of the law's passage.

Although police have thus far issued many citations, it will take time to determine if the citations translate to a change in driver behavior. Ideally the law will reduce the number of drivers that choose to succumb to distractions while driving.

Due to the prevalence of distracted driving, those who are injured in a car accident are wise to consider the possibility that a distraction may have contributed to the accident. In the event the other driver was distracted compensation is likely available to help cover the costs that result from the accident. Contact an attorney to preserve your right for legal remedies and discuss this possibility.