State's drivers answer call to go hands-free
Law restricting cell phone use in cars takes effect July 1
By Brad Shannon | The Olympian
In a little more than a week, Washington drivers will risk a $124 fine unless they either stop talking on their cell phones while driving or use hands-free phone gear.
The National Conference of State Legislatures says that as of July 1, the District of Columbia and six states will have outlawed the use of a hand-held phone while driving. They are California, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Washington and Utah. The laws have exemptions for emergency personnel and emergency situations.
Local bans are in effect in such places as Chicago and Santa Fe, N.M.
• Washington banned text messaging while driving effective Jan. 1. New Jersey followed suit, and Minnesota recently passed it.
30 states and Washington, D.C., now have some law related to cell phones and cars — including 18 states that restrict young or novice drivers from using a cell phone. Oregon is among 10 states that pre-empt local jurisdictions from acting on the law.
After that date, drivers holding a cell phone to their ear can be ticketed. Using a phone with a corded or wireless earpiece, or with a built-in loudspeaker, will remain legal. Also, drivers still will be allowed to touch the phone's keypad to answer calls or dial numbers.
Four other states -- Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Utah -- and the District of Columbia already have hands-free laws. Washington and California join them the same day.
But insurance-industry research shows that hands-free devices might not make driving any safer.
"Simply banning hand-held cell phone use isn't taking care of the safety problem. It's sending the message that hands-free phoning is safe, when in fact it is not," said Russ Rader, spokesman for the national Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is funded by the auto industry. "The research is pointing to the conversation as a major part of the distraction."
The Insurance Institute's 2005 study in Western Australia found that cell-phone users were four times as likely to be involved in a property-damage crash as those not using cell phones while driving. But the study found that crash risks did not differ for hands-free users.
A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute report in 2006 found a link between crashes and driver distractions. A news release at the time said: "Nearly 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involved some form of driver inattention within three seconds before the event. Primary causes of driver inattention are distracting activities, such as cell-phone use, and drowsiness."
Washington's law makes driving with a cell phone held to one's ear a secondary offense. That means a state trooper or police officer must first stop the driver for speeding, defective equipment or suspicion of violating some other law.