Traffic

Here’s how bad distracted drivers are in Whatcom County

Why are cell phones different than other distractions?

David Teater, senior director of Transportation Initiatives at the National Safety Council, explains why cell phones are such a distraction behind the wheel, especially as compared to other distracting behaviors.
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David Teater, senior director of Transportation Initiatives at the National Safety Council, explains why cell phones are such a distraction behind the wheel, especially as compared to other distracting behaviors.

Washington state drivers are among the nation’s most inattentive a little more than a year after police began enforcing the e-DUI law that says drivers can’t be holding an electronic device behind the wheel, according to statistics compiled by an online insurance marketplace.

QuoteWizard produced its report using 2017 data from the U.S. Census and the state Department of Transportation, which collects information about crash types, injuries and location.

“At first, we saw everyone comply, but now we’re seeing people get complacent,” said Trooper Heather Axtman of the Washington State Patrol.

Axtman said she and other troopers constantly see drivers on their phones.

“Some people still think that they can have it,” Axtman said in an interview. “You look over and every couple of seconds they’re looking down. Really? You’re not admiring your shoes.”

Another Quote Wizard report, which considered website user data and Federal Highway Administration statistics, ranked Washington state drivers as the 10th-worst in the nation in 2018 — an improvement from fifth-worst in 2017.

Bellingham drivers had the 32nd highest rate of crashes in the state linked to distracted driving in 2017, accord to Quote Wizard.

Distracted driving can include activities such as talking to other passengers, applying makeup, drinking coffee or fiddling with the radio, in addition to cellphone use.

In July 2017, it became a primary offense in Washington to hold a phone or other electronic device while driving or stopped in traffic, but other forms of distracted driving remain secondary infractions.

Enforcement of the “e-DUI” measure started in January 2018.

An e-DUI ticket is $136, Axtman said.

“That text — did you look at it for just a second?” Axtman said. “Because you just traveled 88 feet“ driving at 60 mph.

Thousands of crashes blamed on distracted driving

Of the 121,047 crashes statewide in 2017, a total of 11,504 of them — about 10 percent — were blamed on distracted driving, according to WSDOT figures.

There were 87 fatal crashes statewide linked to distracted driving.

In Whatcom County, 269 of the 3,096 total crashes in 2017 — about 9 percent — were blamed on distracted driving.

Distracted-driving crashes in Whatcom County include three deaths and eight serious injuries in 2017.

None of the distracted-driving deaths in Whatcom County were linked to cellphone use, according to WSDOT figures.

Overall insurance rates are higher in cities with a larger number of distracted drivers, the QuoteWizard report said, because rates are based local driving patterns in addition to the customer’s driving record.

Washington residents pay $885 annually on average for car insurance, about the same as the national average of $889, according to QuoteWizard.

But Seattle drivers pay almost double that, because of factors such as rainy weather, higher crash rates and more car thefts.

Axtman said Washington State Patrol officers are trying to illustrate the dangers of distracted driving to a new generation of drivers, especially those aged 16 to 25.

She said that younger drivers understand the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but don’t put texting and driving in the same category.

“The phone is what they’ve been raised around,” she said. “They don’t know life without a phone.”

Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.
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