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New Hands-Free Laws Likely Coming Soon For Northwest Drivers ?

Kevin Mooney
Northwest News Network

Washington state lawmakers sent a distracted driving crackdown to the governor's desk late Wednesday. And lawmakers in Oregon are steadily steering their own version of this through legislative committees.

The final tally in the Washington state Senate was overwhelming. Senators voted 39-10 to forbid handling a phone for any reason while behind the wheel -- even while stopped at a traffic light. The tougher rules take effect on January 1, 2019 once signed into law by Washington's governor.

Washington State Patrol Sgt. James Prouty welcomes a stricter standard on cell phone use, but said drivers need to stay vigilant on the road just the same.

"Check your rear view mirrors. Check your side mirrors as you're driving down the road,” he said. “The key is to be aware of your surroundings and not be distracted. And then while you're doing that, you're going to see those people exhibiting erratic behaviors."

Prouty said if you see a distracted driver who poses an ongoing hazard, that's a valid reason to call 911.

Drivers could still use a mobile phone in hands-free mode under the Oregon and Washington distracted driving legislation. Currently, the law forbids texting and holding a phone to your ear. The tightened up laws aim to forbid hand-held use of electronic devices broadly, including for communication, entertainment or navigation at the wheel. ?

“We know that we love our phones and we have a very hard time putting them down and that is affecting our driving behavior and we are less safe on the roads because of it,” Washington state Rep. Jessyn Farrell said Wednesday. She was one of the prime sponsors.

?Washington was the first state to ban texting and driving in 2007, followed closely by Oregon. Since then smartphones have exploded in popularity and are used for all sorts of things, not just texting or calling someone.

?The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in 2015 that Oregon's cell phone law does not technically make it illegal to check Facebook, look up a podcast or even read your Kindle while behind the wheel. The legislation currently moving through the Oregon Legislature closes that loophole and increases the maximum fine to $2,000.

Salem Correspondent Chris Lehman contributed to this report.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.