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Washington drivers face $124 fine for talking on phones while driving

With the hands-free device law taking effect as of July 1, Island County drivers who were used to talking ear-to-the-phone while driving have to change their habits.

Breaking the law is a secondary offense that carries a $124 fine. For example, during a routine traffic stop, an officer can cite a driver who talks on his or her cellphone. Drivers can only dial or answer their cellphones on the road, but any communication must be done hands-free.

“It’s a valid change to the law,” said Oak Harbor Police Department Chief Rick Wallace. “All you have to do is drive down the road and see how many people are talking on cellphones. The act will, statewide and in Oak Harbor, contribute to a reduction in accidents. It’s a positive law.”

Island County Sheriff’s Office Commander Chris Ellis mirrored Wallace’s sentiments.

“(The law) will certainly reduce the accident rate,” said Ellis. “How much? I don’t know. Most of the pubic said they they would adhere to the law.”

Wallace equated the hands-free cellphone law with the mandatory seat-belt law that went into effect in 2002.

“Some people will be unhappy,” added Wallace, “but some were unhappy when the seat-belt law created controversy.”

Some Oak Harbor drivers, however, expressed the law was long overdue.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Lisa Judd as she pumped gas at Safeway. “You should be driving when you’re driving.”

Nathan Spoo, who experienced the hands-free rule on base at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, said, “I think it’s a good thing, personally. I get enough distractions as it is.”

Wallace and Ellis said that neither Oak Harbor or Island County currently keep figures on driver inattentiveness. However, Wallace said that now that the new law is in effect, data from citations will prove helpful.

“We have anecdotal information, but no tracking,” said Wallace. “Cellphone talking probably has contributed to accidents, but we have not hard data. In the future, we will.”

A concern that drivers might have is, will authorities enforce the law immediately or will a grace period be invoked?

“We don’t expect to be writing tickets immediately,” said Ellis. “There will be a grace period. During the first week deputies will be making stops and giving warnings. But the public has had quite a bit of notice that this is happening. I think you’ll see a lot of cars on the side of the road.”

Wallace said that Oak Harbor police officers “will have the discretion to issue a warning. If they feel it’s a flagrant violation, they can issue a citation. This has been widely reported and broadcasted. It will be difficult for drivers to say, ‘I had no idea.’ “

The law has also forced local authorities to review their own hands-free guidelines.

Ellis said that Island County deputies were instructed “not to be on the phone as much as possible,” and to stop all non-emergency calls.

While drivers scramble to meet the demands of the new law, local cellphone dealers are reaping the benefits as customers are arming themselves with cellphones equipped with Bluetooth technology and hands-free devices.

“People are coming in to buy headsets,” said Radio Shack senior sales associate Angela Brocious. “In the last two-week period we’ve seen a spike.” She said that the store is selling 6 to 8 units a day.

However, Ben Chavez, manager of Mobile Music Unlimited, said he’s seen an increase in Bluetooth phone sales as compared to new hands-free devices.

“There has been a definite spike in inquiries,” said Chavez. “People are really freaking out. People who have pre-Bluetooth technology are feeling a sense of urgency.”

Chavez explained that ear buds and car-specific hands-free devices have been popular sells.

Sara Delano’s 2009 Toyota Camry hybrid came equipped with the car-specific Bluetooth technology.

“We knew the law was coming into effect,” said Delano, “but we bought the car for the gas prices, not for the hands-free technology.”

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