Washington State toughens cell phone, texting ban

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Washington State has made talking or texting on a cell phone without a hands-free device a primary offense. The new law, signed Friday, March 26, by Gov. Christine Gregoire, strengthens Washington’s 2008 ban that allowed law enforcement officials to ticket drivers caught using their phones if they were pulled over for another offense.

“Texting while driving and talking on cell phones is a recipe for disaster on our nation’s highways,” says U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “This new law will ensure innocent people do not lose their lives due to the negligence of irresponsible drivers.”

According to research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver, and more than half a million were injured.

In 2009, more than 200 distracted driving bills were considered by state legislatures, and legislative activity is expected to remain strong in 2010.

On Feb. 22, LaHood unveiled sample legislation developed by NHTSA to be used as a starting point for crafting new state laws to prohibit texting while behind the wheel. The sample state law is patterned on the Executive Order issued by President Obama on Oct. 1, 2009, directing federal employees not to engage in text messaging while driving government-owned vehicles or with government-owned equipment. Federal employees were required to comply with the ban starting on Dec. 30, 2009.

LaHood announced the department’s plan to pursue regulatory action to prohibit texting by drivers of commercial vehicles such as large trucks and buses at the Distracted Driving Summit he convened in September 2009. The department recently launched a federal website, www.distraction.gov, as a forum and information clearinghouse.