More drivers are using their cellphones and other electronic devices while behind the wheel than previously estimated - with nearly half of them texting, according to a new study of distracted driving in six counties that included Whatcom County.
University of Washington researchers found that more than 8 percent of 7,800 drivers observed this summer were using electronic devices, most of them cellphones. Of those, 45 percent were texting.
Those were the preliminary results of the study released Monday, Sept. 9. It was the first in Washington state to research driver use of electronic devices, including texting.
Investigators used randomized observations at controlled intersections in Whatcom, King, Pierce, Snohomish, Spokane and Yakima counties to record drivers in a range of activities that were distracting - finding that they were most often distracted by a hand-held device such as a cellphone.
Those results were well above national data, which found that the percentage of drivers text messaging or visibly manipulating hand-held devices had climbed to 1.3 percent in 2011, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study released in April.
Meanwhile, the percentage of drivers who held their cellphones to their ears had reached 5 percent in 2011, according to that federal data.
The Washington state findings have repercussions for public safety, said Dr. Beth Ebel, principal investigator with UW Medicine's Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center.
"Personally, when I watch the behavior of someone who's texting and driving at the same time, it's chilling," Ebel said. "I fear for that person. And I feel angry on behalf of the other folks on the road. We all deserve better."
Studies show that texting while driving increases the risk of crashing by 23 times, she said, a rate similar to driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.19 - or more than twice the legal limit of 0.08.
She hoped the statistics - and the comparison to drunk driving - will encourage motorists to leave their cellphones alone while driving.
"For me texting and talking on the phone while you're driving is impaired driving. It is no longer acceptable for people to drink while they drive or to drive after drinking," Ebel said. "I'd like to see us make the same progress (with distracted driving)."
It is illegal for people to text or hold a cellphone to their ears while driving in Washington state. The fine is $124.
"Folks already know the law. I think we need to make sure they are acting on it," Ebel said.
Authorities are trying to do just that in Whatcom County and other parts of the state.
A total of 71 drivers were ticketed for using their cellphones or other electronic devices in Whatcom County during a May 20-June 2 crackdown - up from 42 during the same time last year, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.
Statewide, 1,448 tickets were issued for cellphone and other electronic device use, compared to 1,059 violations for the same time last year, according to the commission.
The results released on Monday are part of a broader study into the impact of enforcement on electronics and distracted driving. A statewide report card being released in October will provide more data by county.
The Washington Traffic Safety Commission has posted a video of drivers who agreed to have a camera in their car for 48 hours. It shows them driving as they normally do and using their cell phones to illustrate the risk of distracted driving.
Reach Kie Relyea at email@example.com or call 715-2234.