State toughens law on drivers who use their cellphones

The new law takes effect on July 23.

By Robert Mittendorf

The Bellingham Herald

As Washington state prepares to get tougher on drivers who use their cellphones, a local traffic safety expert says strict enforcement coupled with driver commitment to safety are keys to reducing crashes linked to texting and other forms of distracted driving.

“When you’re driving, make driving your priority,” said Doug Dahl, who writes the Road Rules column for The Bellingham Herald.

Dahl, a former police officer, is Northwest region manager of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission’s Target Zero program.

“Pretty much, with the new law, if your phone is in your hand, you are violating the new law,” Dahl said. “I’d like to think that the new law will change behavior. We have some historical evidence to say that’s the case.”

Examples Dahl cited were campaigns to encourage seat belt use and to reduce drunken and impaired driving.

The new law takes effect on July 23. It bans the use of handheld devices while driving, according to an article in The Olympian newspaper.

Under the measure, “the minimal use of a finger” to start or stop a function on a personal electronic device while driving will still be allowed, according to a recent story from The Associated Press. State law now prohibits only texting or holding a phone to the ear while driving.

Oregon lawmakers approved a similar bill last month.

A recent story in The Abbotsford News said Canadian police using a camera found one driver distracted every five minutes. Dahl said Washington state traffic studies show that 10 percent of drivers are distracted.

A study conducted by the University of Chicago and published in the Association for Consumer Research indicated that the mere presence of a cellphone reduces a person’s cognitive capacity.

So far this year, 10 Whatcom County crashes were blamed on cellphone use, including one that caused a serious injury, according to data collected by the state Department of Transportation. For all of 2016, there were 16 crashes linked to cellphone use, with none causing serious injury.

Statewide, the 2016 figure is 774 crashes caused by cellphone use, including five deadly crashes and six serious injury wrecks.

Ten years ago, there were 44 cellphone-related crashes in Whatcom County, and 1,188 crashes statewide.

Possibly Whatcom County’s most well known distracted driving case involved a teenager who was looking into her backpack on Sept. 30, 2010. Carli Renee Alvarado, then 16, rear-ended a car that lurched into a crosswalk, killing 2-year-old Anna Brulotte, who was walking with her mother, Melissa Brulotte.

Anna’s mother actively campaigned against distracted driving, distributing bumper stickers that said “Keep your eyes on the road.”

The Anna Brulotte Memorial Page remains active on Facebook, where a joyful blonde toddler remains forever 2 years old.

Its latest post reads: “Thank you state of Washington for encouraging safe driving practices.”