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Compliance With Toughened Distracted Driving Law Needs Improvement

A bill that would ban the use of handheld devices while driving has been introduced in the Washington Legislature.
Kevin Mooney
Northwest News Network
A bill that would ban the use of handheld devices while driving has been introduced in the Washington Legislature.

Tough new laws against handling a cell phone behind the wheel  took effect in Washington and Oregon this year. Each state’s legislature made it illegal to drive while holding an electronic device for most any reason.

The laws cover phones, tablets, video games and the like.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission got a peek at behavior changes through a private company's smartphone app. TrueMotion makes a voluntarily-downloaded app that takes advantage of a smartphone's motion sensors to record when a person interacts with their phone while driving.

The commission's Shelly Baldwin said at a state Senate committee briefing Monday that app data shared by TrueMotion showed a dip in distracted driving during a two week burst of publicity when the new law started on July 23.

"However, they see that it has gone pretty much back up to what it was before,” she said. "So we're looking forward to January when we (begin) enforcing."

Washington State Patrol Captain Monica Alexander said troopers have stopped nearly 5,000 drivers since July for distracted driving violations, but most got away with just a warning during the six month "educational period" phase in of the toughened law. Alexander said her stats just cover the State Patrol; city officers have their own enforcement approaches.

Washington Senate Transportation Committee Chair Curtis King said he observed drivers holding phones to their ears at least three times on his Sunday drive to Olympia from his hometown of Yakima.

"We have a ways to go," King said. "I will admit I am as guilty as anybody, but we need to keep working at it because it is vitally important."

Oregon's new distracted driving law took only effect on October 1, so it's too soon to assess.

Copyright 2017 Northwest News Network

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.
Tom Banse
Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.