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This is what drivers, police think about the tough new distracted driving law

Traffic officer discusses distracted driving

Bellingham Police Officer L.L. “Buzz” Leake discusses use of mobile phones by drivers and recalls a few horrific crashes caused by distracted driving.
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Bellingham Police Officer L.L. “Buzz” Leake discusses use of mobile phones by drivers and recalls a few horrific crashes caused by distracted driving.

Even as police began full enforcement of Washington state’s tough new distracted-driving law on New Year’s Day, many Whatcom County drivers said they’ve already put their phones away or use hands-free technology.

“I have my phone cradled in a vent holster while I drive,” said Lisa Sack Scott of Bellingham. “I do use talk to text when I drive, which requires a couple of touches. (I) mostly adopted these habits because I knew I couldn’t stand knowing I’d harmed anyone.”

Perry Eskridge of Ferndale said that every day he’s alive is a gift, after nearly being killed when he was rear-ended 10 years ago on southbound Interstate 5 at Slater Road. A teenager going 70 mph in a full-size pickup crushed the back of Eskridge’s car, pushing it nearly 100 yards into the median.

“The first words out of his mouth were ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry. I was calling my mom,’ ” Eskridge said. “He was looking down, dialing his phone, and he didn’t even notice that traffic had stopped.”

“The force was absolutely insane,” said Eskridge, who still has limited use of his left arm.

No more warnings

Washington’s new law took effect in July, but Gov. Jay Inslee asked law-enforcement agencies to give drivers a six-month grace period before writing a $136 ticket. The law makes holding any kind of electronic device a primary infraction for a driver.

In addition, the infraction now can be reported to drivers’ insurance companies and become part of their driving record.

Drivers can use a single touch or a finger swipe on a phone, but can’t be holding or typing on any electronic device. The fine increases to $234 if a driver is caught a second time.

During the grace period that ended last Monday, Washington State Patrol troopers stopped 120 drivers in Whatcom County for using a handheld electronic device, issuing 95 warnings and 25 citations, said Trooper Heather Axtman. An additional seven stops were made for distracted driving not related to use of an electronic device, resulting in six warnings and one ticket.

“I completely agree with the law,” said Danielle Taylor of Bellingham, in response to a Facebook inquiry.

“I never use my phone while driving and refuse to be a passenger in a car with someone that does,” Taylor said. “I never text and drive. I keep my phone on my pocket or a bag in case I’m in an accident, that way it doesn’t fly around and is easy to find.”

First ticket issued

A Bellingham Police officer wrote the city’s first ticket under the new law on Tuesday, but it was a blatant violation that would have been a citation under the previous law, said Sgt. Carr Lanham of BPD’s traffic division.

It was issued at 2:29 p.m. Tuesday in the 1700 block of North State Street, according to the online police activity reports.

“The person was holding a phone with their right hand to their right ear,” Lanham said. “It fell under the old law, but it was likely the first patrol citation.”

New concern over distractions

Washington’s new law was prompted by public demand and outrage over high-profile crashes and deaths blamed on distracted driving. In 2015, according to the latest available National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures, there was a 10 percent annual rise to 3,095 traffic fatalities nationwide.

A 2006 study by the University of Utah found that driving while intoxicated was less dangerous than driving while talking on a handheld cellphone or a hands-free setup.

“Mythbusters,” the popular Discovery Channel show, found in a 2015 episode that drivers using a hands-free phone performed just as poorly on road tests as drivers using a handheld phone. Their conclusion was that drivers should focus on driving.

Crash data often incomplete

In Whatcom County, there were 250 crashes in 2017 that were blamed on distracted driving – resulting in three deaths and eight suspected serious injuries, according to the state Department of Transportation.

That’s down from 266 distracted driving wrecks in 2007, but there were no deaths that year and fewer (five) suspected serious injury crashes.

He was looking down, dialing his phone, and he didn’t even notice that traffic had stopped.

Perry Eskridge of Ferndale

For cellphones alone, WSDOT data for Whatcom County lists 18 car wrecks in 2017, with no fatalities and one serious injury. That’s up from 15 cellphone-related crashes in 2016, 17 in 2012, but down more than half from 44 in 2007 – long before smartphones came in wide use.

Doug Dahl of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, who writes the weekly “Road Rules” column for The Bellingham Herald, said those statistics can be skewed by the way traffic information is reported.

“That data can be misleading. Cellphone crashes are generally way under-reported,” said Dahl, a former sheriff’s deputy.

We’re programmed to answer them, we’re programmed to look at them, we’re programmed to pay attention to them a lot more than we’re programmed to drive.

Officer L.L. “Buzz” Leake, Bellingham Police

He said investigating officers rely on driver statements or admissions to document cellphone use in a traffic collision. Phone records are subpoenaed only in the case of a fatality or serious crash, he noted.

Bellingham Police suspect that the death of a pedestrian in January 2017 was caused by inattention of some kind, but officers weren’t able to prove it, said motorcycle Officer L.L. “Buzz” Leake. He and other motorcycle officers investigate car wrecks within the city.

Why we use cellphones while driving

Leake said many people still use their cellphones on the road, even though they know it’s dangerous, because society had become conditioned to using cellphones and driving, long before laws were enacted to limit their use.

“For years, people got used to using it,” Leake said. “We’ve got a whole generation of people that don’t know what it’s like not to even have a cellphone. We’re programmed to answer them, we’re programmed to look at them, we’re programmed to pay attention to them a lot more than we’re programmed to drive.”

120 Number of drivers in Whatcom County that were stopped by the Washington State Patrol for using a held-held electronic device from July-December 2017.

25 Number of citations given in that period, with 95 warnings issued.

Axtman and Leake said it’s easy for patrol officers to tell if a driver is using a cellphone.

Distracted drivers often panic stop because they don’t see a traffic light change to red, or stay at an intersection long after the light has turned green, the officers said. Distracted – or otherwise impaired – drivers also weave in their traffic lanes or go far slower than the speed limit.

Leake said it’s even easier for motorcycle cops, because they’re perched on the bikes, above most car drivers, and they have a clean line of sight into the passenger compartment.

“When you’re driving, make driving your priority,” Dahl told The Bellingham Herald in June for a story on traffic safety.

Other distractions

“Everybody is starting to get the message that distracted driving is dangerous,” Lanham said.

Still, he said he’s seen people eating soup from a bowl behind the wheel, apparently using a leg to drive hands-free.

Washington’s new law addresses other forms of driver distraction, making it easier for officers to issue tickets for eating, applying makeup, cradling a dog, smoking or drinking coffee – if the officer thinks those actions are hampering the driver.

Your Starbucks will not cost you if you can still drive.

Trooper Heather Axtman, Washington State Patrol

“I’d like to think that the new law will change behavior, and I think we have some historical evidence to say that’s the case,” Dahl said in June. He pointed to educational and enforcement campaigns aimed at reducing drunken driving and increasing seatbelt use.

Axtman said commuters shouldn’t worry about sipping their morning coffee, as long as they keep their eyes on the road.

hands free
Brett Hudson from Jackson, Mich., installed an aftermarket Bluetooth system for hands-free phone calls in his 2002 Chevrolet Trailblazer. Fabrizio Costantini The New York Times

“Your Starbucks will not cost you if you can still drive,” she said. She also said that drivers are still allowed to use their cellphones in an emergency.

“Don’t hesitate to call 911,” Axtman said. “We still encourage people to call 911 right away if they see a hazard. There’s a lot of things that we wouldn’t be able to catch or see if people don’t call.”

Perry Eskridge
Perry Eskridge is pictured at his desk at the Whatcom County Association of Realtors on Wednesday, Jan. 25, in Bellingham. Eskridge of Ferndale said that every day he’s alive is a gift, after nearly being killed when he was rear-ended 10 years ago on southbound Interstate 5 at Slater Road. Evan Abell eabell@bhamherald.com

Eskridge said his experience has emboldened him to warn others about distracted driving.

“I highly encourage (even nag) my family and friends to never ever use a phone while driving,” he said. “If I use my phone in the car as the driver, I use the hands-free options. No text is worth my life.”

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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