Washington law should be tougher on cell-phone use by all drivers

Still, cracking down on teen drivers using electronic devices is a positive step.

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Let's face it, people like to talk on the phone. Look around. Folks are doing it everywhere seemingly all the time.

And talking while driving is particularly popular.

Sure, we all know that talking on a cell phone - even with the Bluetooth in our ear - makes driving more dangerous. But making phone calls while in the car is so efficient. It's such a great way to save time in our busy lives. We can do two - or more - things at the same time.

This is why it's been difficult for states to ban, even restrict, cell phone use in cars.

Still, some positive action for public safety was taken last week. Lawmakers approved a ban on texting and cell-phone use by teen drivers. The measure bars 16- and 17-year-old drivers from texting or using any cell phone - handheld or hands-free.

To this point, however, Washington state has taken baby steps to curb cell-phone use in cars. It is illegal to talk on a hand-held cell phone while driving, it is also illegal to text, but hands-free chatting is OK. But cell-phone talking is a secondary offense for adults, meaning that law enforcement can't cite lawbreakers unless they are caught breaking another law.

So, for example, if you are driving at 20 mph in a school zone with a cell phone in your hand, you are free to go. If you are speeding at 30 mph, you are busted - twice.

But some lawmakers don't see the logic in making cell-phone use a quasi-offense. Neither do we. Either it is illegal or it isn't.

Legislators are now considering making hand-held cell-phone use a primary offense. The proposal passed the Senate but was upended in the House.

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, embraced the House's action.

"I don't like the government being in all aspects of our business," he said.

If talking on the phone while driving was only our business we would agree. It's not. When you are driving a car everything you do is a legitimate public concern. It's why we have traffic laws.

Studies have shown that drivers on cell phones are just as impaired as legally drunk drivers and that talking on the cell phone reduced reaction time by 9 percent. The studies also make it clear that driving is impaired whether the phone is hand-held or hands-free.

People don't want to hear or acknowledge this reality. We all want to believe we are safe drivers when we are on our cell phones. It's those other drivers who are the problem, right?

Sorry, we - all of us - are part of the problem when we talk and drive.

The ban on teen talking and texting is welcome, but the Legislature should at least take action to make driving while talking on a hand-held phone a primary offense for all drivers.

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