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Cell phones and driving: State Sen. Eide (D-Federal Way) leads the push for tougher law

A bill that makes it a primary offense to drive while operating a cell phone without the assistance of a hands-free device is awaiting the governor's signature.

Senate Bill 6345, sponsored by State Sen. Tracey Eide (D-Federal Way) and others passed in the Senate on Feb. 5. Its companion bill passed in the House on Thursday with 60 yeas and 37 nays. State Reps. Mark Miloscia (D) and Skip Priest (R), both of Federal Way, voted in favor of the bill.

Eide has long supported tougher laws about cell phone use while driving. In 1999, a Federal Way resident contacted Eide about his concerns regarding motorists who drive and talk on their cell phones. The resident's concern prompted Eide's sponsoring of this and similar bills, a spokesman for the senator said.

"I’ve fought for this for 10 years, and sometimes I thought this day would never come," Eide said in a prepared statement. "Maybe now people will pay attention to their driving instead of their conversations."

In 2007, legislation sponsored by Eide made talking or texting while driving a secondary offense. This made it possible for police to pull over a driver and ticket that person for the use of a cell phone while driving, but only if the driver was committing a primary offense, such as speeding. The bill did not "significantly alter drivers' habits," according to Eide's statement.

Under the new legislation, drivers using a cell phone to talk or text without the use of a hands-free device will be committing a primary offense. A hands-free device is described as a headset or earpiece; however, speakerphone mode is also acceptable, according to the law. Persons with an intermediate license may not use a cell phone to talk or text at any time during the operation of a moving motor vehicle, according to the bill. Violators caught disobeying the law could receive a $124 ticket. Infractions will not become part of a person's driving record, according to the bill.

"Our roads will be safer and I believe lives will be saved as a result of this law," Eide said in her prepared statement.

There are a few exceptions to the rule. Persons operating an emergency vehicle, such as a police officer or fire personnel, are exempt. Individuals using a phone while driving to report an illegal activity, summon medical help or prevent injury to a person or property cannot be cited, according to the law. The law also exempts individuals using voice-operated GPS systems that are affixed to a vehicle, and individuals using a device permanently affixed to a vehicle to relay time sensitive information between a transit operator and that operator's dispatcher, according to the bill.

In her quest to strengthen the law, Eide enlisted the aid of the Washington State Driven to Distraction Task Force. The grass-roots group of Washington citizens is concerned with the state's number of drivers who talk or text on their cell phone while driving, according to the group's Web site.

Eide also asked Federal Way City Manager Brian Wilson to testify on behalf of the bill. Wilson urged legislators to make it a primary offense to talk or text on a handheld cell phone while driving.

Wilson's testimony was a bit of irony at work. This past year, he accidently rear-ended a vehicle while reading news headlines on his Blackberry. Wilson mistakenly thought traffic at a red light had begun to move. Wilson let off the brake pedal, hitting the vehicle in front of him. Wilson publicly apologized for the incident, which did not cause any major damage or harm to anyone.

Check it out

Read the bill in its entirety at http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=6345&year=2010

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