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Washington State Distracted Driving Law

Posted by William Kirk, Partner | Jul 21, 2017 | 0 Comments

Welcome to the World of Washington's E-DUI

Fresh off its efforts to end the scourge of left-lane slowpokes, Washington State has enacted one of the nation's toughest distracted driving laws after our State Legislature passed a bill outlawing nearly every conceivable form of attention-diverting behavior behind the wheel.

Starting Sunday, drivers will no longer be allowed to use handheld devices at all, even while stopped in traffic or doing something as simple as scrolling through a playlist.  So, say goodbye to your red-light selfies and social media spot-checks. Any officer who spots a driver with a phone in hand at any time for any reason can issue a ticket starting at $136, and repeat offenders will see that fine rise to $234 per violation.

What is more troubling about this law, is that by making all forms of electronic distraction a primary offense, it allows officers an almost unfettered justification for pulling a car over.  An officer who merely has a “good faith belief” that a driver who is engaged in any of these prohibited activities can pull the car over.  Of course, once a car is legally seized, evidence of other crimes, such as intoxication or having a suspended license, could be investigated as well.

Additionally, a whole slew of other common sights—smoking, eating, drinking, reading, and "grooming"—are now secondary offenses, meaning drivers can be handed a $99 ticket for any of these actions if they're pulled over for something else.  So that guy you see on your morning commute making the illegal merge while shaving and eating his McMuffin is in for a rude awakening.

Washington's new E-DUI law will undoubtedly be a sticking point for some people. We can all agree that texting (and reading, and grooming, and sometimes eating) is indeed distracting when controlling a multi-ton vehicle, and therefore probably shouldn't be allowed.  But can the same be said for drinking a bottle of water?  Or smoking a cigarette?  It can be argued that anything other driving is a distraction behind the wheel, but it doesn't take too much effort to imagine a driver suing the state over a disputed ticket and the law's true intent. 

Then again, by now we know Governor Jay Inslee doesn't have the highest regard for human drivers in all our glorious fallibility.  He kept beating that drum at a distracted driving awareness event in the state capital on Monday.  Governor Inslee also vetoed a provision of the original bill that would have delayed its implementation until 2019, reminding the crowd in Olympia that a distracted driver is just as bad as a drunk one—and that the issue is too urgent to wait.

About the Author

William Kirk, Partner

Bill Kirk has been named a Super Lawyer by Washington Law and Politics Magazine every year since 2003. He currently serves on the Board of Regents to the National College for DUI Defense and is the President of the Washington Foundation for Criminal Justice. Bill is one of only two attorneys in this state to pass the National College's Board Certification Exam.

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