After 6 months, drivers ignoring cellphone ban
After Washington's ban on drivers' use of handheld cellphones took effect July 1, observers noted an initial drop in the practice. But now, they say, cellphone use on the road is on the rise, and advocates hope the law will be strengthened.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Cindy Baker-Williams held a "Hang Up and Drive" banner over Aurora Avenue North in Fremont when Washington's handheld cellphone ban for drivers began on the first of July.
She and her family hoped the new law would change drivers' behavior.
It did at first. "The initial trend we saw was less people talking," said Baker-Williams.
Then cellphone use started creeping back up, said Sgt. Freddy Williams of the State Patrol, who has carried on his own informal off-duty study of driving-and-talking.
He can't think of another law that's been flouted quite like this one. "I've seen people walk out of their house and before they put their car in gear, they're talking on the cellphone," he said.
Now, he says, "we see about one in three drivers talking on a cellphone. People seem to be ignoring the law."
Lawmakers, lawbreakers, law officers and advocates of the law agree on that.
It's not for complete lack of enforcement. Statewide, troopers handed out 746 tickets for illegal driving-and-talking through November. They've socked it to teenagers and septuagenarians; but mostly men and drivers in their 20s and 30s have paid the price. Troopers also issued 1,345 written and verbal warnings.
Seattle police have written another 247 tickets, according to the Seattle Municipal Court.
But driving-and-talking is a secondary offense, meaning the police have to stop a driver for another violation before they can write a $124 ticket for holding a cellphone.
And the number of driving-and-phoning citations is tiny compared to the 127,185 speeding tickets state troopers wrote between July and December.
"The motoring public has determined that Washington state troopers aren't going to be lurking around every corner just so they can write them cellphone tickets," Williams said.
The pioneering law — only six states have such a ban — might have contributed to a drop in car crashes on state roads this year. The number of collisions since July 1, when the law took effect, was down 11 percent, from the same period in 2007, according to the State Patrol.
It's impossible to know, though, Williams notes, whether the drop resulted from the cellphone ban or other factors such as high gas prices and less travel.
Pro vs. con
Studies have indicated that talking on a cellphone distracts a driver's brain like several glasses of wine would, according to molecular biologist Dr. John Medina, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning at Seattle Pacific University and author of "Brain Rules."
Five years ago, Baker-Williams' son Billy was 8 years old and running for a school bus in Bellevue when he was struck by a car, suffered a traumatic brain injury and slid into a coma. No one was charged. Witnesses, according to Baker-Williams, said the driver was talking on a cellphone.
Billy awoke a month later, the same warmhearted person, his mother says, but deaf in one ear, with learning disabilities from having a crushed skull.
"His injury has left him with word-retrieval problems. If you've known an adult who's had a stroke, it's like that; they know the words but can't retrieve them."
David Miles, of Ravensdale, is still not convinced the cellphone ban is warranted.
Miles, 46, was ticketed in late October for talking on his handheld phone and making an unsafe U-turn in Covington.
A regional sales manager, Miles said he had taken a call from his boss just after noon and didn't want to fumble through his briefcase for his earpiece. A King County District Court judge dismissed the U-turn charge, he said, but upheld the cellphone fine.
Miles called the new law a revenue-raising and political-correctness ploy by politicians. If holding a cellphone is banned, he said, then other distractions, like eating and loud music, should be also. "I'd rather see some drivers on cellphones than with music blaring so loud I can feel it thumping in my car."
Miles said almost all of his driving and phoning is work-related. Getting a ticket hasn't stopped him from using his phone in the car, he said. "I just hide it more and keep my eyes out more for the police."
Who's getting tickets
State troopers have given most of their tickets — 63 percent — to men.
The gender gap is the same for warnings, with 63 percent of those going to men.
Most violators are younger, with a majority of tickets issued to drivers under 35.
But that's not to say older drivers are immune. Troopers have ticketed 39 drivers over the age of 60, including one 75-year-old.
Offenders have been nabbed all across the state, with a roughly equal numbers of tickets written in the Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, Everett and Yakima areas.
The State Patrol doesn't keep records about the cars of offenders. But Williams guesses more tickets have gone to affluent drivers than blue-collar motorists. "It's more BMWs than Dodge Darts, in my observation," he said.
The state also enacted a law at the start of 2008 banning text-messaging by drivers. Troopers have handed out just 106 tickets for that offense and most went to men and younger drivers. Only one driver over 60 was cited for illegal texting.
First step toward goal
Advocates for accident victims see the current law as a starting point, a first step in a quest that may take years.
"As a secondary offense, I knew the law would be limited in effectiveness," said Desiree Douglass, a founder of a local nonprofit group, Headstrong, that helps people with traumatic brain injuries — half of which are caused by car crashes in the United States.
Douglass wants driving and talking on a handheld phone to be a primary offense. "At Headstrong, we said that from the very beginning."
The public appears to support a tougher law. A statewide poll by Pemco Insurance in June, just before the new law took effect, showed 60 percent of Washington drivers wanted to make a handheld cellphone ban a primary offense.
But Douglass knows state lawmakers took seven years to move the current law from initial proposal to passage. And it took 16 years for the state's seat-belt law, implemented as a secondary offense in 1986, to become a primary offense in 2002.
"We also understand that laws get passed by little steps," she said.
Baker-Williams expects it will take a similarly long time — and lots of statistical evidence and personal tragedies — before the cellphone law is strengthened and drivers change their habits.
Her son, who just turned 14, said he's up for the challenge. "I feel like I need to do more to make it harder for people to talk on their cellphones and to make it a safer place," said Billy Williams.
Staff reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this report.
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or email@example.com
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