As of June 10, 2010, add Washington the growing list of states that has made talking on a handheld phone (without the use of an ear piece or speaker) and sending, reading or writing text messages, while driving, a primary offense. This means that if a police officer observes an individual driving while taking on a cell phone, or “texting”, that person can be stopped and cited. Under previous incarnations of the mobile cell phone laws, a person could only be cited if a primary offense led to the stop whereupon it was determined that the individual had been talking on a phone or texting. RCW 46.61.667 (relating to cell phone usage) and 46.61.668 (sending, writing, and reading text messages) became effective at midnight tonight.
The new laws create general exceptions for emergency personnel, people reporting criminal activities and emergencies, and tow truck drivers. Interestingly, the state legislature has continued to make these offenses non-reportable to insurance companies and not part of a person’s driving record. The thought process must be that people will be more likely to pay the stiff fine than to fight the ticket, and taking up state and local resources in the process, if their insurance rates won’t go up. The cynic in me says that this new law is nothing but a money grab by the State. In enacting this bill, the legislative argument that drove the conversation was that hand held phone use or texting while driving were both as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. If so, why is DUI punishable by jail, fines, probation, treatment, license suspension, etc. while violations of this new law are only considered to be a non-reportable traffic infraction?
Though the efficacy of these statutes can be debated, particularly the cell phone ban, it’s effect with respect to DUI enforcement is obvious. Police now have one more justification to pull someone over who is not displaying any aberrant or “bad” driving. And as always, it will be the driver’s word against he cop’s as to what was happening inside the driver’s vehicle. Move over seat belt law. We have a new affront to probable cause.