It can be so tempting.
You’re behind the wheel, stopped at a red light; you’ve got about 30 seconds to kill. Next to you, often just inches away, your cellphone beckons. Your car isn’t moving, so what the harm in firing off a quick text or checking your email, right? In fact, it could cost you plenty.
Starting today, drivers caught holding a cellphone or any other electronic device while stopped at a red light or intersection will be subject to a $136 fine under Washington’s strict new “E-DUI” law. The fine for repeat offenses within five years is $234.
Drivers who are pulled over and found carrying out other types of “dangerously distracted” behavior such as grooming, smoking, eating or reading can also receive a secondary fine of $99.
The new law does allow “minimal use of a finger” to activate an app or device, so a single touch or swipe is still permitted.
The new law is part of the state’s push to reduce traffic fatalities, which are increasingly tied to distracted driving. According to a recent study by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, nearly 10 percent of motorists are holding a device at any given moment. A recent HuffPost/YouGov survey found that more than half of smartphone users between the ages of 18 and 44, and 40 percent of users aged 45 to 64, have texted while stopped at a red light.
Erica Mascorro, a spokeswoman for the traffic commission, said using a phone while stopped a traffic light or intersection is still dangerous even if the driver’s car isn’t moving.
“We’re supposed to use that time to scan the intersection and we’re supposed to pay attention to how traffic is moving ahead,” she said.
In 2015, the commission recorded 171 deaths from distracted driving in Washington — a 30 percent increase from the previous year.
In 2016, the Washington State Patrol had more than 13,000 contacts with motorists for cellphone use while driving and more than 3,300 contacts for texting while driving. Overall, troopers issued more than 9,000 distracted driving-related citations.
Longview Police Sgt. Chris Blanchard said the new regulation is a “natural extension” of Washington’s 2011 law that prohibits talking on a phone or texting while driving. Blanchard said the new regulations make it clear that people need to pull over to the side of the road and come to a complete stop before holding any type of electronic device.
“This codifies things more specifically and is more encompassing,” he said.
In Cowlitz County, the number of phone-related citations and vehicle collisions increased with the growing popularity of smartphones.
In 2008, the year after the iPhone was released, there were two fatal crashes and five crashes that resulted in serious injury from distracted driving. Fast forward to 2016, the most recent year for publicly available data, and there were two fatal crashes and 12 serious injury crashes.
The number of citations issued by law enforcement in Cowlitz County has also risen as smartphone technology has become ubiquitous. From 2011 to 2012, the number of citations issued for cellphone use while driving more than doubled in Cowlitz County. Texting-while-driving citations during the same time period increased by more than 1,000 percent locally.
While citations have generally been trending downward since then, that’s more a reflection of staffing levels than any other factor, Kelso Police Captain Darr Kirk said. For example, Kelso officers issued 88 illegal cellphone use tickets in 2011, accounting for nearly 80 percent of all cellphone use infractions in the county that year. The following year, the police department lost eight staff members to retirement and only issued 21 citations.
“Everything is a priority for us, but we do have to prioritize,” Kirk said. When call volume is low, officers have time to conduct proactive traffic patrols, he said. But Kelso doesn’t have a dedicated traffic unit and officers have to respond to calls as they come in, he said.
Longview Police appear to be enforcing distracted driving laws on a routine basis, with roughly 1,100 citations issued since 2008 — twice as many as the Olympia-based Washington State Patrol unit.
Sgt. Chris Blanchard said distracted driving has become as big a problem as drunk driving. Based on the behavior of a vehicle, it can be impossible for officers to tell the difference between an intoxicated driver and a distracted driver, he said.
People who text while behind the wheel have a 23 percent higher chance of causing a crash, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those are roughly the same odds as someone who’s had four beers and decides to drive.
Blanchard said Longview Police is not planning on conducting additional enforcement as a result of the new legislation, but will continue to enforce traffic laws as they are written.
Local state Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, who voted against the law, said his main concern was that parts of it are poorly worded.
“Some of the language about the ‘one-finger operation’ was convoluted,” he said.
Walsh also said he thinks the new law could disproportionately affect rural and suburban drivers.
“I think this law may not be applied to the same standard everywhere,” he said.
When Kelso resident Shalisa Caskey was cited in late May, she said Officer Roy Slaven explained that Kelso has a zero tolerance policy for talking on a phone while driving.
Caskey had just finished dropping off her boys at daycare and was about five blocks away from her house.
Reached by phone while she was pulled over on the side of the road, Caskey said she hasn’t used her phone while driving since receiving the $136 ticket.
“I will never talk on my phone and drive ever again,” she said. “It was stupid.”