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Originally published September 8, 2013 at 8:21 PM | Page modified September 9, 2013 at 11:20 AM

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Study finds drivers in state busy on cellphones, texting

One in 12 drivers were using cellphones or other electronic devices while behind the wheel on Washington roads — and half of those were texting — in the first study of its kind in this state.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Washington Traffic Safety Commission recently installed small cameras in the cars of teen drivers to create a traffic-safety video. Here is a 90-second clip of that video from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

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The first study in Washington of distracted driving found that one of 12 drivers in six major counties were using cellphones or other electronic devices while behind the wheel — and nearly half of those were texting.

And while many commuters might consider that rate lower than what they see on roadways each day, the author of the study being released Monday said the rate is actually higher than previous estimates.

Texting “is more distracting than most things people do in their cars,” said Beth Ebel, the study’s principal investigator and a trauma doctor in the Injury Prevention and Research Center at Harborview Medical Center. “Your eyes are off the road and your brain is also off the road.

“The world’s not going to stop if you don’t respond to a text.”

Ebel, who is also a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, was awarded a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Public Health Law Research to study the impact of enforcement on electronic distracted driving.

She dispatched investigators this summer to randomly observe behind-the-wheel behaviors of 7,800 drivers at intersections in King, Snohomish, Pierce, Spokane, Yakima and Whatcom counties. They found 8.1 percent of drivers were using electronic devices — mostly cellphones. Nearly half of those were texting.

This first-of-its-kind study comes three years after the Legislature banned the use of handheld mobile devices and text messaging, making violation of the law a primary offense.

But, “we haven’t been able to measure how many people are engaged in such activities, which we all know are unsafe not just for the driver but for others on the road,” Ebel said.

“It’s important for us in society, for law enforcement, as well as for policymakers, to be able to track this so we can measure progress.”

While estimates by the National Safety Council show that 25 percent of all motor- vehicle crashes nationwide involve cellphone use, there’s little data — national or otherwise — showing the extent to which drivers use electronic devices while behind the wheel.

The Centers for Disease Control analyzed 2011 data on distracted driving and found 69 percent of surveyed drivers reported they had talked on their cellphones while driving within 30 days of responding to the survey.

At Harborview, Ebel said, she sees the result of distracted driving all the time, including among her young patients.

“I see folks at Harborview every day who don’t need to be there,” she said.

Texting while driving is not unlike drunken driving, she said, noting studies that show sending messages while behind the wheel increases the risk of a car crash 23 times — similar to driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.19 percent.

The study being released Monday is part of a statewide collaboration among several organizations, including the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, Public Health — Seattle & King County, the Washington State Traffic Commission and the Washington State Patrol.

Ebel said investigators will share the information with counties across the state, where there are wide disparities — county to county — in the way law-enforcement officers and judges enforce the state’s cellphone law.

“We feel we can learn from that and do better,” she said.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.

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