Rules of the Road: Is it legal to hold a cellphone like a walkie-talkie? Or to pull over just to answer a call?

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 6, 2013 

Question: When driving and not having a hands-free device, is it legal to pull over to the shoulder to answer a call? If not, what is the protocol?

Another writer asks: I see more and more people holding their cellphones in front of them like a walkie-talkie while driving. I looked up the Washington state law regarding cellphone use while driving. It just said drivers cannot hold cellphones to their ear while driving. I thought the new law regarding cellphone use was that you could have your hands-free device on while driving so that both hands could be free to steer the wheel.

Answer: I put these two questions together as they deal with the same issue, cellphones.

To answer the first question, it depends. If you are on the freeway or a limited-access highway, the shoulder of the road is actually to be used for "emergencies" such as flat tires, etc. The best option in that case would be to let the phone go to voicemail and then take the appropriate exit off the freeway and find a legal place to stop to return the call. If you are on a city or county roadway and it is legal to park on the side of the road, you could pull over and stop to take the phone call.

As far as the issue of using the phone as a "walkie talkie" by activating the speaker phone option, it unfortunately is legal. The law is worded in such a way as to confuse the issue. It was designed to have people use their phones hands free, which to me would indicate not holding it in your hand. The legislators, however, added the words "to your ear" in the law, which makes the speakerphone "walkie talkie" option legal.

With more time and studies being done on cellphones and driving, it is interesting to note that a number of researchers have begun to correlate the distraction caused by talking on a cell phone with the same level of impairment in driving skill as someone who is legally impaired by alcohol and/or drugs.

The next time you are out driving and see the car ahead of you weaving back and forth in the road or having trouble maintaining a steady speed, you might look to see if they are on their cellphone.


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David Wright is a retired officer from the Bellingham Police Department who is now on the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force.

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