Guest Column: Distracted driving law covers more than just cell phones

The state’s new law targeting distracted drivers sure is irritating folks.

What’s riled them is not so much the outright ban on use of any hand-held cell phone or electronic device while behind the wheel, a violation that could result in a $136 ticket.

It’s the part where people could get pulled over for speeding, as an example, and slapped with an additional penalty if the officer noticed them munching on a burger or lighting a cigarette or drinking a cup of coffee in the course of their lead-footed offense.

A woman identified as Angela Cruze started an online petition July 21, two days before the law took effect, seeking a rewrite. Roughly 27,500 people had signed it by Wednesday morning with the tally climbing hourly.

“Drinking coffee to stay awake and not crash is needed at 4 a.m. for my animal emergency nursing job,” wrote a petition signer identified as Heather Encina of Everett. “And even though I don’t smoke, they have the right to smoke in their own car, without children in there.”

“These things do not cause accidents.”

The law is well-intentioned but goes too far, many argued. Some noted if a driver becomes dehydrated it puts their health and the safety of others on the road at risk.

“This is a classic example of the spirit of the law becoming misguided to where it shifts from keeping the people safe, to controlling people,” wrote a person identified online as Adiah Swenson of Vancouver. “Not being able to eat, and especially drink, while driving is absurd and unreasonable.”

The law does not specifically say you cannot eat or drink while driving.

What it actually says in Section 3 is it is an infraction to “drive dangerously distracted.”

That’s defined as engaging in “any activity not related to the actual operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of such motor vehicle on any highway.”

Eating and drinking qualify. Beautifying yourself does, too. Rifling through a stack of CDs or picking a video for your children to watch in the backseat might as well. Even trying to get your dog to sit in a seat and not your lap could be grounds for an infraction.

What’s critical to understand is this is a secondary offense. It can only be assessed if an officer pulls over a driver for committing another traffic offense such as speeding, erratic driving or talking on a hand-held cell phone.

Once the petition gets 35,000 signatures it will be delivered to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, all members of the state Senate and Republican President Donald Trump.

A copy also should go to Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, as he is the lawmaker responsible for this particular provision.

Hayes, a sergeant with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, said electronic devices aren’t the only distraction for drivers and thus use of them shouldn’t be the only activities subject to penalties.

“A heck of a lot more people are crashing because they are reaching for a French fry or fiddling with the radio,” he said.

He opposed any new restrictions until language he drafted on driving while “dangerously distracted” was amended into the final version.

Washington’s law may now be the nation’s broadest ban, Hayes said with pride. This will give law enforcement officers “more tools” to address distracted drivers, he said.

And more ways to punish them.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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