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Originally published January 16, 2010 at 6:52 PM | Page modified January 17, 2010 at 11:26 PM

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Corrected version

Bill would make holding a cellphone while driving a primary offense in Wash.

Senate Bill 6345 would make holding a cellphone while driving a primary offense, reason enough for a police officer to pull a driver over and, unless the phone is being used for an emergency, issue a $124 ticket.

Seattle Times staff reporter

OLYMPIA — Sen. Tracey Eide has boxes full of studies that speak to the dangers of using cellphones while driving, with texting carrying the most risk.

"It's the equivalent of driving drunk," she said, referring to a study last year by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute that found when you send a text while driving, you've probably just taken your eyes off the road for up to 6 seconds and traveled the length of a football field.

The Federal Way Democrat has renewed her fight to further crack down on drivers who use handheld cellphones, promoting legislation that would allow officers to pull over a driver when they see it.

"It's a safety issue," said Eide. "I drive every day. My family drives every day."

The proposal has reopened a bipartisan debate: Is a new law targeted at cellphones needed to ensure public safety or do existing laws against distracted driving do the job?

Senate Bill 6345 would make holding a cellphone while driving a primary offense, reason enough for a police officer to stop a driver and, unless the phone is being used for an emergency, issue a $124 ticket.

Since July 2008, using a handheld device while driving has been a secondary offense, meaning police have to see another violation before making the traffic stop and writing the $124 ticket for holding a cellphone.

If the bill were to be enacted, Washington would join four other states and the District of Columbia in making it a primary offense.

The new law would be stricter on those who hold either a driver's permit or an intermediate license — even the use of a headset or speakerphone would not be allowed. In the state House, HB 2635 is a companion bill that aims to accomplish the same tightening of the law.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety claims that cellphone users are four times more likely to crash than non-distracted drivers, while the study by Virginia Tech found that texting while driving puts people at an even greater risk, over 20 times greater.

"People say that they can multitask, but they are actually dividing their attention," said Sgt. Freddy Williams of the State Patrol. "Driving is a full-time job. You need to be aware of what is going on in front of you, beside you and behind you."

Everyone seems to agree that distracted driving is dangerous, especially considering that, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 80 percent of crashes involve some form of driver inattention.

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But not everyone agrees that cellphones should be the scapegoat for other diversions such as tending to children, searching for cigarettes or even events happening outside the car.

"There is nothing more distracting about holding a phone to your ear than putting on makeup while driving or eating a Big Mac," said Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, who intends to vote against the bill. He says each of those activities poses a danger and noted that the state has laws that give officers the discretion to ticket for reckless driving.

Benton also said he sees this as an attempt to hit citizens with a new, hidden tax.

Washington could stand to bring in a lot of revenue. In New York, the first state to make holding a cellphone reason enough for a traffic stop, police from 2001 to 2008 handed out 1.28 million tickets.

"I just think that it is an inappropriate use of police powers to pull people over and invade their privacy because they chose to talk on the phone while driving a car," said Benton. "You cannot legislate responsibility. Citizens need to be responsible for themselves."

The Virginia Tech study also showed that talking on a cellphone allowed drivers to keep their eyes on the road and did not carry nearly the same increased safety risk as texting. The research showed that most of the danger involved finding the phone, putting on the headset (if used) and dialing the number.

"It is more of a 'Nanny State' type of bill. How many things are we going to regulate for a driver?" said Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, who also plans on voting against the bill. "It is a session to deal with the budget and government reforms."

Eide, Benton and Sheldon are members of the Senate Transportation Committee, which is set to give SB 6345 its first hearing at 3:30 p.m. Monday.

Both the Driven to Distraction Task Force of Washington State and the State Patrol plan to testify in favor of the ban, said Peter Dodds, executive assistant to Eide.

Washington is not alone in this discussion.

Legislatures across the nation will argue how to regulate distracted driving, and 19 states have already banned texting while driving, most of them classifying it as a primary offense.

Whether cellphone laws have reduced auto accidents has not been determined, but numbers are in for how well the bans have worked to discourage drivers from using their phones.

In those states with established handheld laws, it has declined by as little as 24 percent in New York and as much as 65 percent in Connecticut, according to the Insurance Institute.

"I never count my chicks before they hatch," said Eide, when asked what chance these bills have of becoming law. "It took seven years to get it to be a secondary offense, so this is not going to be a piece of cake."

Material from the Los Angeles Times was included in this report.

Lillian Tucker: 360-236-8266 or ltucker@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published Jan. 16, 2010, was corrected Jan. 17, 2010. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated a date. It has been corrected to read that since July 2008, using a handheld device while driving has been a secondary offense.

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