Washington State to Ban Cellphone Users Who Drive

I’ve always said I loved the Seattle area. I was born out there (Bremerton), I actually like the weather, I love the culture and the sports franchises, and now I love their politics. One of my biggest pet peeves is people who use their cell phones and don’t use an ear piece. Apparently the Washington State legislature feels the same.

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OLYMPIA, WA — Talking on a handheld cellphone while driving could soon cost you $101.

After years of failed attempts, the state House on Wednesday approved new cellphone restrictions on a bipartisan 59-38 vote. The measure has already cleared the Senate, and Gov. Christine Gregoire is expected to sign it into law.

“As the bumper sticker says, ‘Hang up and drive,’ ” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island.

If the legislation is signed by the governor, Washington would join a small number of states that restrict talking on a handheld cellphone while driving.

A related bill that would ban text messaging while driving has passed the House and is expected to pass the Senate this week.

Sen. Tracey Eide has been trying for the past seven years to restrict cellphone use while driving. After initially facing stiff opposition from cellphone companies, she was able to get most of the industry on her side in recent years.

But until Wednesday, she was never able to even get a vote in the House.

The vote had been expected earlier this week, but Democratic leaders couldn’t get enough votes in their caucus to pass it. They held off until Republican supporters rounded up the extra votes they needed.

“It’s absolutely a safety issue,” Eide, D-Federal Way, said after the vote. She said talking on a cellphone while driving is “equivalent to driving while you’re intoxicated.”

But opponents — including Democrats and Republicans — said Eide’s bill is vague and unenforceable. They questioned why the Legislature is singling out cellphones over other driver distractions, such as applying makeup or eating fast food. Some warned it sets a worrisome precedent.

“We’re going to piecemeal this,” said Rep. Richard Curtis, R-La Center. “Next year, it’s going to be the hamburger bill.”

Under current law, motorists can be cited for negligent driving if police see them driving dangerously while talking on a cellphone.

Eide’s legislation, Senate Bill 5037, takes that a step further.

Under the legislation, people who hold a cellphone to their ear while driving could face a $101 fine. But it will be considered a secondary infraction, meaning drivers can be cited only if they are pulled over for another offense, such as speeding or reckless driving.

It will still be legal to use hands-free devices such as earphones and Bluetooth technology, and to talk on licensed amateur radios. The legislation imposes no limits on emergency workers, tow-truck operators or motorists trying to call law enforcement.

The new law would take effect Jan. 1, 2008.

Many states have some limits on cellphone use while driving, especially for young drivers. But only four other states — California, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey — have similar handheld cellphone restrictions, according to a report last month by the National Conference of State legislatures. Three of those laws make it a primary infraction.

During Wednesday’s 90-minute floor debate in the House, opponents made numerous unsuccessful attempts to alter the bill. One amendment would have limited the new cellphone law to just King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. Another would have allowed police to only give verbal warnings for the first year after the law took effect.

The House did approve one amendment — exempting people with hearing aids that prevent them from using hands-free devices. Eide said the Senate will concur with the change.

Critics — mostly Republicans — argued that, under the new law, it will be extremely difficult for patrol officers to prove that a driver was actually holding a cellphone to his or her ear. And they pointed out that drivers will still be allowed to dial their hands-free phone, arguably an even greater distraction than holding a phone to the ear.

“Don’t pass a bill that you know doesn’t work and is unenforceable,” said Rep. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

But 11 Republicans voted for the bill, and a few gave some of the most impassioned speeches on Wednesday.

Rep. Joyce McDonald, the prime sponsor of the bill to ban text messaging while driving, said she takes it personally when she sees someone talking on a cellphone while driving.

“You’re taking my life in your hands … and that is not your right,” said McDonald, R-Puyallup.

Rep. Maureen Walsh said that, in the past, she viewed the proposed cellphone restriction as an unnecessary government intrusion. But she changed her mind after seeing evidence that the state’s seat-belt law is saving lives.

“What a shame we have to pass laws that basically instill common-sense measures,” said Walsh, R-College Place. “But, you know what, when they can save a life, they’re worth it.”

(this article from the Seattle Times can be found here: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2003663197_cellphones12m.html)

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~ by Steve L. on April 12, 2007.

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