Time to beef up texting-while-driving law

State legislators should consider a change in the state law that bans texting or talking on a hand-held phone while driving.

Right now, the penalty for such an infraction is $124, regardless of how many times an individual breaks the law.

However, if the state ramps up the penalty for repeat offenses, it would be eligible for a larger share of federal funding to increase enforcement and pay for a full-blown public safety campaign to discourage distracted driving.

The state Legislature made texting or talking on a hand-held phone while driving crime in 2007. In 2010, they amended the law to allow police to pull someone over on suspicion of texting or talking on a phone while driving. Previously, it was a secondary offense.

Last year, the Washington State Patrol meted out 8,000 tickets and 10,000 warnings to motorists who violated the law. But repeat offenders are treated the same as first-time offenders.

A major transportation bill approved by Congress last summer included nearly $12 million next year and $18 million in 2014 for states to finance “don’t text while driving” campaigns. For a state to be eligible for the money the federal government stipulated that fines need to ratchet up with each repeat offense.

It seems like a reasonable request, given the grave nature of the problem. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving is the number one killer of American teens. In 2010, more than 3,000 deaths and 416,000 injuries on United States highways were traced to distracted driving, including texting.

For young drivers ages 16 to 24, it’s a severe case of denial. A national survey released last May by the Ad Council showed that 60 percent of the drivers in that age group admitted to texting while driving.

This is potentially lethal behavior. Studies show that a driver who takes his or her eye off the road for two seconds raises the risk of a potentially horrific accident.

Despite the seriousness of the problem, the state is yet to launch a major enforcement and ad campaign against driving while texting. An infusion of federal funds would get the ball rolling on just such a program.

The program could be modeled after the state’s successful seat belt campaign known as “Click it or Ticket.”

That program gets a share of the credit for the fact that Washington state had the highest seat belt compliance rate in the country last year – 97.5 percent.

Without question, a concerted campaign to stamp out texting while driving, especially among young drivers, would save lives and reduce injuries from distracted driving.

Other types of crimes have escalating penalties for repeat offenses. The federal government is making a change in the state’s texting and phoning while driving law too good of a deal to ignore.