Rules of the Road

Old habits die hard; were you able to break this one on your drive into work today?

As of Sunday, Washington drivers have a new set of rules to follow regarding distracted driving.

In the lead-up to the implementation of the law, you may have been bombarded by messages from the state and news stories from your favorite media outlets about the details and consequences of the new law. If you were on a media fast for the last couple months, let me be the first to welcome you to the current era of distracted driving law.

This week’s topic might lean a little too far toward the technical side of things, but this new law will affect the current behavior of, based on current data, about 70 percent of the drivers on the road (you know who you are), so we may as well dig in and understand the new rules.

Let’s begin by looking at the title our legislators came up with when they proposed the bill: Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act, or E-DUI. I think they were intentional about their choice to connect cell phone use with impaired driving. The crash risk of using a phone while driving is similar to the risk of driving with a blood alcohol level of .08, and the crash risk for texting while driving is even greater.

If we take a line-by-line approach to understanding the new law, the first sentence makes it pretty clear: “A person who uses a personal electronic device while driving a motor vehicle on a public highway is guilty of a traffic infraction . . .” There you go; don’t use your phone while driving.

There are four exceptions, three of which apply only to a narrow group of vehicle operators. Here they are:

▪ Calling emergency services.

▪ Transit operators getting updates from dispatch.

▪ Commercial vehicle operators (this one isn’t really an exception; commercial vehicle drivers have to obey the existing federal distracted driving law).

▪ Emergency responders.

With the exceptions covered, the law goes on to define three key terms: personal electronic device, driving and uses. It’s important to understand that these words are given a definition specific to this law; they may not mean exactly what you expect.

Personal Electronic Device: This is anything that can use a wi-fi or cell signal and isn’t primarily designed to be used hands-free in a vehicle. The law lists a few items as examples including (but not limited to), of course, cell phones, tablets, laptops, two-way messaging devices and electronic games. CB radios and amateur radios are not considered personal electronic devices.

Driving: Based on the definition in the law, if your car is between the fog lines, you’re considered driving. Even if you’re not moving. To quote the law, driving means to “operate a motor vehicle on a public highway, including while temporarily stationary because of traffic, a traffic control device or other momentary delays.” That means no texting at stop lights, in traffic jams or while waiting for a train. If you’re off the roadway in a location where it’s safe to remain stationary, you’re good. Text away.

Uses: Here’s where things get interesting. Holding a personal electronic device in your hand, even if you’re not doing anything with it, is considered using it. If your phone is mounted in your car you’re still limited in how you can use it. As you’d expect, texting and emailing is prohibited. Actually, it appears that doing anything with your device besides a hands-free phone call is prohibited. Here are the actions included on the “not allowed list”: compose, send, read, view, access, browse, transmit, save or retrieve. I can’t really think of what else a phone can do. The only exception is that a driver is allowed “the minimal use of a finger to activate, deactivate or initiate a function of the device.” Think tapping or swiping to answer or end a phone call.

Side note: Just because hands-free phone calls are still legal doesn’t mean it’s safe. A phone call is a cognitive distraction that diverts your attention from your primary task of driving and increases your risk of a crash.

Bonus section: The new distracted driving law isn’t just about cell phones. It includes a section on “driving dangerously distracted.” Think of anything drivers might do that distract them from the primary task of driving: eating barbecued ribs, putting on makeup, turning around to try to get a 2-year-old’s sippy cup from spilling all over the leather interior. If that distraction causes a driver to commit a traffic violation, like crossing the centerline or fog line or following too closely, the driver can get a ticket for dangerously distracted driving.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.

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