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Cellphone driving law: biteless to distraction

You’re headed down the road, doing the speed limit.

CD’s playing. You tap your left foot. It’s OK, you’re not using it for anything else. You rap your right hand on the steering wheel, maybe both hands. You warm up your baritone, get in the groove, lay down some harmony.

Hmmm, a sneeze coming on. No problem. You can sneeze with your eyes open. Usually.

The kids are getting into a fight in the back seat.

You glare in the mirror. It’s OK, your peripheral vision has the road covered.

What? Another rattle? Planned obsolescence. You check the dash, whack it here, whack it there.

Kids still going at it.

You reach for the last bite of cheeseburger on the passenger seat. Why’s it way over there? Watch the ketchup.

Not much traffic, if you don’t count the guy ahead doing Morse code on his brake lights. Or the pickup on your rear bumper, the guy flashing hand signals.

Splat! That’s one big bug on the windshield.

Kids still at it. Give ‘em another stare.

Sigh. It’s one of those days. But, hey, everything’s cool, in control.

Still, the phone keeps ringing.

Dig around in a pocket, fish it out.

“Hello?”

Oops.

You just broke the law.

Washington’s cellphone regulation is a couple of months old, but there’s not much enforcement so far in the South End.

Since July 1, drivers who talk on cellphones without hands-free devices face a $124 ticket. Since Jan. 1, drivers who read or compose text messages face a $124 ticket, too.

But both are “secondary offenses.” You don’t get a ticket for using your cellphone unless you’re pulled over for something else.

“We’re mostly aiming to take an educational approach,” Undersheriff Kelly Mauk of the Island County Sheriff’s Office said Monday. “I think the hope is that in the future, most people won’t talk on the phone while driving.”

Mauk said sheriff’s deputies have written three tickets for cellphone use since July 1.

Sgt. Jason Longoria, the trooper in charge of the Oak Harbor office of the Washington State Patrol, said cellphone enforcement activity “is pretty much non-existent here.” He said he knows of no State Patrol citations that have been issued on South Whidbey.

“I see plenty of people driving down the road talking on their cell phones, but I can’t do anything about it,” Longoria said.

“My personal opinion is, if they want to effect change, it needs to be a primary offense.”

Keeping roads safe

Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the measures into law a year ago, after eight years of debate in the state Legislature. She made the announcement in Olympia, flanked by children who had suffered serious injuries after being hit by distracted drivers. She called the measures an important first step.

According to the Associated Press, Cindy Baker-Williams and her son Billy were among those who stood by. Billy, 12, suffered a brain injury more than four years ago while walking to the school bus. Witnesses said the driver of the vehicle that hit him was talking on a cellphone, his mother said.

Billy, who was in a coma for nearly a month and suffered injuries to his brain’s speech centers, now helps his mother keep an eye out for distracted drivers.

“Every single time I see a person on a cellphone, I say ‘A person on a cellphone!’

I just, like, scream it out,” he told reporters last year.

Longoria said cellphone use is just another in a long list of things that can interfere with driving.

“It’s ironic,” he said. “You can read a newspaper, eat a bowl of cereal, put on makeup, shave, but you can’t talk on your cellphone.”

“A cellphone can be a distraction,” Longoria agreed. “But so can someone in the passenger seat, or a 3-year-old in the back seat.”

He said driving is a divided-attention activity, involving several functions involving the eyes, ears, hands and feet.

“The more slices you take out of the pie, the less you can focus on driving,” he said.

Washington joined 26 other states and the District of Columbia in applying some form of restriction to cellphone use while driving.

Some states ban cellphone use completely for certain drivers, and others, such as Alaska, only ban text-messaging. Idaho has no cellphone restrictions.

Washington drivers can still use hands-free devices such as earpieces, wireless headsets and speakers. By comparison, California’s fines are lower at $20 for the first violation and $50 for subsequent violations.

While adult drivers in California can talk on a hands-free device, drivers younger than 18 can’t use a cellphone at all.

There are no age restrictions in Washington. Drivers in the state also are exempt from cellphone laws in certain situations, such as emergencies.

In February, PEMCO Insurance commissioned a poll. Of those who responded, 60 percent thought that using a cellphone while driving should be a primary offense, meaning you could be pulled over and ticketed.

An even larger majority, 73 percent, thought that text-messaging behind the wheel should be a primary offense.

The poll also showed that the percentage of those who already use hands-free devices rose from 17 percent the previous year to 21 percent, although

28 percent of drivers reported using a hand-held device.

Perhaps not surprising, according to the PEMCO poll, electronic-device usage was particularly high among younger drivers, “but younger drivers do indicate greater intent (35 percent versus 29 percent overall) to purchase a hands-free device.”

And two in three respondents to the poll said that texting and talking on a cellphone while driving “contributes significantly more to accidents and problems — even more so than speeding and driving while fatigued.”

Researchers agree

Research appears to help back this up. In 2001, University of Utah psychology professors David Strayer and Frank Drews used a joystick-equipped computer to show that people talking on cellphones were more likely to miss situations or react more slowly during traffic simulations.

“If you put a 20-year-old driver behind the wheel with a cellphone, their reaction times are the same as a 70-year-old driver who is not using a cellphone,” Strayer wrote in the report. “It’s like instantly aging a large number of drivers.”

In a 2005 followup study, Drews and Strayer found that motorists talking on cellphones performed about the same as drivers with blood alcohol levels exceeding .08 percent.

Additionally, the researchers noted, new cars are becoming increasingly complex, with DVD players, GPS devices and other high-tech items that can divert attention from the road.

“What happens is you have a very complex environment that exceeds the capacity of what a human can do,” the study said.

The human factor Longoria said he has noticed more and more island drivers using hands-free devices, and added that “I think most people want to do the right thing.”

He and Mauk agreed that perhaps the best approach to minimizing cellphone usage by drivers is to follow the example of the state’s seat-belt law.

Washington has required drivers and passengers of motor vehicles to wear seat belts since 1986, but, like the cellphone laws, the regulation started out as a secondary offense. It became a primary offense in 2002.

Longoria said drivers gradually accepted the seat-belt law, and by the time it became a primary offense, there already was about 85 percent compliance.

“Making it a primary offense converted the diehards, and now we’re up to 95 percent,” he said. “The same thing could happen with cellphones.”

Mauk said the emphasis should be on information and education.

“There’s some difficulty in enforcing the cellphone law,” he said. “But the thought is to push the spirit of the law and hope for compliance.”

Roy Jacobson can be reached at 221-5300 or rjacobson@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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