Why have local states made such sweeping changes to laws on distracted driving?


You’re cruising along Interstate-5 and suddenly the last morsel from your bag of Cheetos slips through your fingertips and tumbles to the floorboard of your car.

Though you know full well it’s a bit risky, you nevertheless reach down and start pawing around your feet to retrieve the golden munchie.

You even glance down once or twice. In an instant, your tasty treat has become a driving distraction.

Yet, there are no actual laws banning Cheetos. Similarly, there are few if any precise laws against driving with a burning object, like a cigarette, in your hands.

However, because of a rising trend in highway fatalities, there are new and tougher laws in Oregon and Washington that have been expanded to prohibit drivers from manipulating popular electronic gadgets like cell phones, iPads, tablets and laptops, as well as navigation and messaging devices, and video games.

The new laws permit only minimal, hands-free use, such as simply using a finger to activate or deactivate a device.

Some might consider these laws an unnecessary invasion of our privacy. Others may argue that lawmakers and law officers are going too far. After all, these e-gadgets are solidly integrated into the fabric of society.

Yet, consider some staggering statistics that add a life and death perspective to the debate.

“We kill as many people on our roads every week (in this country) as if a 747 was crashing,” says Shelly Baldwin of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. “If a 747 was dropping from the sky every week, we would ground air traffic, figure it out and fix it.”

Changing our culture

So how do we fix the problem here in the Northwest? Electronic devices not only distract, they sometimes become killers. The immediate answer has come in the form of laws designed to alter our entire driving culture, by making it taboo to use electronics while driving.

Just as beefed-up laws in the past motivated motorists to buckle up or limit the amount of alcohol before driving, today’s new laws are meant to encourage distraction-free motoring. Or pay the price.

Price to pay

In Washington state, besides a $136 traffic citation for Driving Under the Influence of Electronics (DUIE), the state will also notify the offending driver’s insurance company.

In Oregon, violators may get clobbered with a maximum fine of $1,000, up from $500. First-time offenders may get a reprieve from the court if they take a Distracted Driving Avoidance Course. However, subsequent fines climb up to $2,000 and cannot be waived.

After a decade-long decline in highway fatalities in Oregon, the number of deaths climbed significantly in the past few years, up to 495 in 2016 — despite safer cars, better seat belt use, and no significant increase in driving under the influence.

Who’s to blame?

Therefore, the rise in deaths and injuries on our roads is likely attributable to drivers being distracted by electronic devices, according to David House, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

ODOT reports that every three hours someone is injured by distracted driving in Oregon. One in four crashes reportedly involves cell phone use just prior to the crash.

In fact, House says, “We are certain that this (mobile electronics) is one of the most under-reported factors in crashes, because if drivers were using their phones at the time of the accidents, they typically don’t want to admit that. So, we think this (DUIE) is highly under-reported.”

House also reminds us that electronic device use is also prohibited even in stopped traffic and at stop lights.

“You’re sitting at an intersection and the light turns green and the car in front of you doesn’t move,” he says. “That’s because they’re on their phone.” A car needs to be parked and the engine off before officers won’t cite.

The National Safety Council identifies cell phone use as the top distraction while driving. The council also disputes states like Oregon and Washington that permit hands-free technology, arguing that “these technologies distract our brains long after you’ve used them.”

A study by AAA draws the same conclusion that “the use of hands-free devices and voice-activated systems are just as distracting as the use of a hand-held cell phone.”

Dangerously distracted

As states continue to strengthen laws to combat distracting electronics on our highways — for example, Alaska violators can be fined up to $10,000 along with a year in jail — motorists are also cautioned about what are known as Dangerously Distracted Laws.

They apply to things like putting on make-up or shaving while driving, eating, puffing on a cigarette, and yes, even searching for a lost Cheeto — if they are part of the problem.

You probably won’t get pulled over for these infractions, but they could add to a fine if they contributed to the problem.

Washington State Patrol Sgt. James Prouty says, “If I’m driving down the road and I reach over to grab my soda and swerve out of my lane and come back in, that swerving is a violation. If we find that the soda was a distraction in conjunction with you swerving, you can also receive a $99 Dangerously Distracted citation.”

A survey of some 900 motorists by State Farm Insurance showed that use of mobile web services actually decreased slightly for drivers from ages 18 to 29, but increased for drivers overall.

Fact is, it doesn’t take a major study to find examples of distracted drivers.

We’ve all seen the infractions. Just today, I glanced at the driver of a car traveling in the lane next to mine. The fingers of her left hand were laced around the steering wheel while also holding a lit cigarette. In the other hand, she was dialing a number on the cell phone. She was not looking at the road.

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