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New state cell phone law for drivers starts soon on Whidbey

Beginning Thursday on the South End and throughout the state, drivers can be pulled over and ticketed for talking on hand-held cell phones or texting.

The fine is $124. The only exceptions are calls on hands-free devices, hearing aids or drivers making emergency calls, according to the Washington State Patrol.

“If you’re holding the phone to your ear, you’re likely to be stopped,” Capt. Chris Gundermann of the State Patrol’s field operations bureau said Monday.

“We will be flexible with virtually any type of headset or speakerphone device, but holding the phone itself to your ear will get our attention,” he said.

Texting can be harder to spot, because the unit is usually held low.

Gundermann said studies show that drivers reading or sending a text message take their eyes off the road for as long as five seconds.

“We’ll be looking for people who clearly aren’t watching the road,” Gundermann said, adding that troopers have received training in texting behavior.

“Sooner or later the phone comes up high enough that we can see it and make the stop,” he said.

The new law beefs up the one on the books for the past two years, in which talking on a cell phone or texting were secondary offenses. That meant drivers could be ticketed only after being pulled over for another infraction, such as speeding.

Although the State Patrol has promised that there will be no grace period, local troopers say the call, as always, remains up to the officers on the road.

“Just because you get stopped, it doesn’t mean you’ll get a ticket,” Sgt. Jason Longoria, trooper in charge of the State Patrol’s Whidbey Island office in Oak Harbor, said this past week.

“But people shouldn’t expect to get a break, either,” he added.

Det. Ed Wallace of the Island County Sheriff’s Office in Coupeville, agreed.

“It’s based on the situation,” Wallace said of his department’s approach to law enforcement on the road. “But it’s not tolerance,” he added.

Longoria said he expects public acceptance of the new law will mirror that of the state’s seat-belt regulation.

When that 1986 law moved from a secondary to a primary offense in 2002, there was a spike in the number of tickets. Infractions gradually dropped off as people got used to buckling up.

Longoria said the cell-phone issue hasn’t been a big problem on Whidbey, and that only a “handful” of tickets have been written in the past two years.

He said what’s needed is a broader approach, a law covering all distractions to driving.

“Right now, you can read a newspaper, eat breakfast or put on your makeup, and it’s not against the law,” Longoria said. “It would be nice to have an over-arching law.”

Modern devices inside vehicles, such as movie players and GPS receivers, add to the problem, he added.

“There are so many things in cars that can distract people,” Longoria said. “The more distractions you have, the less attention is paid to driving.”

Gundermann said statistics show young people are more likely to be killed or injured in traffic accidents.

Young people also are more likely to use cell phones and other electronic devices.

The new law prohibits all use of electronic devices, including hands-free sets, by young drivers with intermediate licenses or a learner’s permit.

State Department of Licensing Director Liz Luce is urging parents to help with enforcement.

“A cell phone in the car is one of the most dangerous things a teen driver can have,” she said Monday. “Responsibility starts at home.”

Some law enforcement officials have raised concern that drivers may unexpectedly pull off the road to text, or to make or take a phone call, creating yet another kind of hazard.

Pulling over on interstate highways is prohibited except for emergencies, but it’s OK on state and county roadways if you can get entirely off the road.

So far, it hasn’t been a problem on Whidbey, local officials said.

“They’re few and far between,” Longoria said. “As long as they have a safe place to pull off, there aren’t a lot of problems.”

Added Wallace: “We’d much rather have them on the shoulder, than talking and driving.”

Since the law went into effect in 2008, the State Patrol has written approximately 3,000 tickets and given about 5,900 warnings.

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