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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Lawmakers Approve Strict Limits For Electronics Use Behind The Wheel ?

Kevin Mooney
Northwest News Network
A measure in the Washington Legislature would ban the handling of an electronic device while behind the wheel -- even while stopped at a traffic light.

Put down your phone and drive. That’s the message from Washington lawmakers.

The Washington House passed a new distracted driving law Wednesday and it needs one more vote in the Senate before it goes to the governor.

?Current Washington law bans texting behind the wheel. But it allows drivers to hold their phone in one hand and drive with the other, as long as the phone isn’t held up to the ear.

The new law would be much stricter: no handling of a phone behind the wheel. Not even while stopped at a traffic light. A quick touch to activate or deactivate a function would be OK and emergency calls would also be allowed.

Democrat Jessyn Farrell is one of the sponsors of the “Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act.”

“This bill is really about safety,” she said. “And it’s really about our kids who are watching every single thing that we do.”

The new rules would apply not just to smartphones, but to tablets, laptops and other so-called personal electronic devices. Drivers could use voice activation technology.

The proposed law would impose double fines for repeat violations. That could mean a ticket of $235 for a second offense.

Opponents argue the crackdown goes too far and might result in drivers who are not distracted being ticketed.

“They’re driving fine, they’re at a normal speed, they’ve got a good, safe distance between them and the vehicle ahead of them, they haven’t swerved out of a lane or anything else, I don’t think that they should be pulled over,” said Republican state Representative Ed Orcutt.

In a nod to concerns about other distractions behind the wheel, the proposed law would also create a new secondary distracted driving offense. It would allow police officers who make a traffic stop to write an additional ticket for distracted driving if the officer discovered the driver was, for instance, eating while driving or doing something else that interfered with the safe operation of the vehicle.

Washington was the first state to ban texting and driving in 2007. That was long before the era of ubiquitous smart phones and other devices.

If signed by the governor, the new distracted driving law would take effect on January 1, 2019.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."