Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Foolin' Ourselves

The Washington State Legislature passed a bill toughening the restrictions on cell phone usage while driving. But does it really do what it's intended to do? First, let's look at some some reports containing remarks from legislators and law enforcement officials.

From KING-5.

"Maybe now people will pay attention to their driving instead of their conversations," Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, and sponsor of the bill, said in a prepared statement after the vote.

"Our roads will be safer and I believe lives will be saved as a result of this law."


"Distracted driving is a very serious, real deal problem," said Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. "There's a public safety element to this that is very real."

From our own KXLY.

Officer Tim Moses with the Spokane Police Department says officers have waited a long time for a stricter cell phone law.

"When you're going 60 miles-per-hour, and a car is moving hundreds of feet a second, and you're looking at your cell phone, and your not paying attention to that 4,000 lb. speeding bullet you're in charge of, you're looking at a cell phone, that's what's wrong," said Moses.

From the HeraldNet.

Q: What does the Washington State Patrol think about this?

A: They welcome it because they hope it keeps more drivers focused on driving. While state troopers are exempt, the WSP chief wants them to abide by the law as best as they can and to that end is trying to get them headsets.

From the Seattle Times.

"The public-safety community really stepped up and convinced the legislators that were on the fence," said Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. "They deal with the carnage every day."

In an editorial chastising the House for wanting to pass weaker legislation on the matter, the Seattle Times editorial board had this to say.

Current cellphone rules are halfhearted because they make texting and talking on a handheld phone while driving a secondary offense. That means an officer has to have an additional reason to make a stop, such as weaving or a busted taillight. Many motorists flagrantly violate the law because they know the officer is unlikely to pull them over.

The Senate, led by Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, tried to improve the law, passing legislation that makes texting and talking on a handheld phone a primary offense. Simple, clear-cut rules of the road.


Make the roadways safer by passing a law that actually persuades motorists to alter their dangerous, distracted driving.

And from Senator Tracy Eide's blog.

It's impossible to ignore - driving while using a cell phone is dangerous. The National Safety Council recently released a study stating that 28 percent of all accidents involve talking or texting on cell phones. Cell phone use while driving has been shown to be as dangerous as drunk driving. Research shows drivers who text are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash. Even Oprah Winfrey - who calls distracted driving an epidemic that is claiming lives and destroying families across the country - has demanded an end to driving while using a cell phone. I encourage you to visit her website to see her powerful message urging drivers to stop using their cell phones.

So let's have a look at the text of the bill (PDF).

The restrictions for those with an instructional permit is spelled out quite clearly.

The person is not using a wireless communications device, unless the person is using the device to report illegal activity, summon medical or other emergency help, or prevent injury to a person or property;

As are the restrictions for those with an intermediate license.

The holder of an intermediate license may not operate a moving motor vehicle while using a wireless communications device unless the holder is using the device to report illegal activity, summon medical or other emergency help, or prevent injury to a person or property.

Notice that in both cases the person is not allowed to use a wireless communications device. Period.

Here is the rule for those without an instructional permit or intermediate license.

Except as provided in subsections (2) and (3) of this section, a person operating a moving motor vehicle while holding a wireless communications device to his or her ear is guilty of a traffic infraction. (emphasis mine)

In this paragraph the offense is not for using a wireless communications device which leads to the distraction the legislators and law enforcement are concerned with, but merely the act of holding it to your ear. Bizarrely enough, the way this is written you don't even have to be using the phone. There are some exceptions.

(2) Subsection (1) of this section does not apply to a person operating:
(b) A moving motor vehicle using a wireless communications device in hands-free mode;
(d) A moving motor vehicle while using a hearing aid.
(4) For purposes of this section, "hands-free mode" means the use of a wireless communications device with a speaker phone, headset, or earpiece.

Notice the definition of "hands-free mode" doesn't necessarily mean your hands are free. You can use a speaker phone, headset or earpiece and still hold a phone in your hand.

Clearly, drivers can still talk on and be distracted by their wireless communications devices. Changing it from a secondary to a primary offense makes good politics I suppose. But seriously, if we're so concerned with instructional permit and intermediate license holders using a wireless communications device while driving, which is certainly a distraction, then why not apply the same standard for the majority of drivers like they did for texting in this bill?

Rather than addressing the distraction they claim to be worried about, these legislators are fooling us and themselves. This does nothing about Oprah Winfrey's proclaimed epidemic of cell phone usage while driving or the "carnage" wrought by a "4,000 lb speeding bullet". This only changes the appearance of the distraction and will possibly make earpiece vendors happy.


heyjack70 said...

I agree. Why complicate this bill with multiple rules for different grades of licensee? The restriction for limited and intermediate licenses should apply to anyone driving (with the WSP exception... sounds reasonable).

I can only imagine the legislators are AFRAID of not being reelected by common folks angered because they can no longer talk on their cell while driving. But who knows really. Do you have any thoughts?

Sherry said...

What Scandanavian country used to (and maybe still does) have a mandatory minimum of one year in jail for drunk driving? I thought that was a fine idea! Along the same line, I like making talking/texting on the phone while driving a primary offense. If a person is 23 times more likely to have an accident, it seems clearly in the public interest to provide a powerful disincentive. I'm curious about the WSP communications devices now: do they still use radios? AND phones?

Hank Greer said...


I can't address their thinking. Only that the law they wrote doesn't completely address the issues they claim to be addressing.


I agree it should be a primary offense. The problem is the vast majority of drivers can still drive while talking on the cell phone just as long as they're not holding it to their ear.

Bill Foss said...

I still like the idea of a program where we could take pictures of people talking/texting, send them in to the city and receive 1/2 of the cash from a very big fine. I could make a lot of money every time I go on a run.