The state Legislature showed some real backbone and wisdom the other day. Lawmakers made it a primary offense to drive while using a hand-held cell phone to talk or to be reading, writing or sending text messages.
Previously, it was a secondary offense. That means it was illegal to use a hand-held cell phone to talk or text but law enforcement couldn't write a ticket to offenders unless the scofflaw was pulled over for another offense such as speeding or reckless driving.
That approach was ridiculous, dangerous -- and very irritating. Over and over again drivers with cell phones glued to their ears, who were breaking the law, acted as if what they were doing was legal and acceptable. It is as if they thought nobody could see them breaking the law-- or, perhaps, they don't care if they are breaking the law and doing something dangerous.
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.
And drivers who are paying attention would have to concede that these studies are on the mark. Who hasn't been cut off or experienced some other heart-pounding action caused by someone on a cell-phone?
Yet, although most people grasp that driving while on a cell phone is distracting, few will admit it negatively impacts their driving. That's because most people enjoy the time savings and freedom of driving while talking. 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?
Everybody on a cell phone, and that's either with a handset or a hands-free Bluetooth system, is distracted.
"Maybe now people will pay attention to their driving instead of their conversations," said Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, sponsor of the new law. "Our roads will be safer and I believe lives will be saved as a result of this law."
Maybe a little safer. A lot of folks will still be engrossed in conversations using legal hands-free technology. Again, studies show that hands-free talking is as dangerous as hand-held.
Lawmakers, however, couldn't have banned all cell-phone use without a revolt. Banning cell-phone use has to be a gradual process.
Legislators did the right thing in moving that process along and making using a hand-held cell phone a primary offense.