Washington House Reverses Course: Legislature Makes Hand-Held Cell Phone Use While Driving and Texting Primary Offenses
Yesterday the Washington House of Representatives reversed itself by passing the Washington Senate's version of a cell phone/texting bill, which the Governor is expected to sign.
What does this mean to drivers in the State of Washington? It means that if the bill becomes law (and it's really more a matter of when than if), police officers will be able to stop motorists who are holding cell phones and/or texting while driving without witnessing another offense. Current law allows the police to issue traffic tickets to motorists for holding a cell phone or texting only if some other primary driving infraction (e.g., speeding, improper lane change) is being committed at the same time.
Proponents think the new legislation will save lives; opponents see government intrusion and wonder why other activities such as smoking, eating, and putting on makeup are not similarly made primary offenses.
As an attorney who deals with traffic offense cases every day, while I strongly support measures that make roadway users safe, I also believe in providing the driving public with incentives--especially economic ones--that will make drivers alter behavior in a positive way.
The new legislation, while making cell phone and texting infractions primary offenses, prohibits the offenses from becoming part of a driver's record that is available to insurance companies. Here, the Legislature creates a monetary penalty for the offenses, but says "hey, we don't want this offense on a driver's record, because even though we think this type of driving is so outrageous, and there is a major safety issue here that we must spend a ton of time with in this legislative session, we don't think it's really worth telling the public about or insurers." Instead, the Legislature sends the following message: the conduct is so unsafe that we don't want anyone to know the people who perform this unsafe behavior, so we will not punish through insurance increases anyone who breaks the law and we will not reward those who choose to obey the law.
There's a reason that the word "law" is in the word "flaw." The Legislature could have done a much better job by passing a bill that actually helps people who obey the restrictions obtain better insurance premiums. After all, if the conduct is so dangerous, than clearly risky drivers ought to assume a greater financial burden. But the Legislature didn't care about that, and instead chose expediency over substance, a common theme in this session.