Question: Which of the following is legal behind the wheel? A) Reading a text message while stopped at a red light or stop sign, B) Glancing down to read a text message as long as you do not type a response, or C) Talking on the phone during daylight hours?
Answer: It’s a trick question — none of the above!
While many Washington residents seem to believe that some form of cell phone use is permissible while driving, the short answer is, talking on the phone or texting while operating a vehicle are not only illegal behaviors, but also extremely dangerous ones.
Spreading this message is the goal of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission with its “U Text, U Drive, U Pay” campaign against distracted driving. April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and the commission is making it possible for 150 law enforcement agencies around the state to have extra patrols specifically targeting distracted drivers.
“Driving is something that takes every ounce of attention we have. It is the most dangerous thing we do every day,” said Angie Ward, program manager for the commission.
According to Washington state law, it is illegal for a driver to text or hold a phone up to their ear. Studies have shown that talking on a phone while driving makes a person four times more likely to be in a car crash, while typing on a phone increases a driver’s chance of being in an accident by 23 times.
Ward said that the two statements she hears most often after accidents are, “It came out of nowhere” and “It happened so fast.” She said that this is indicative of a distracted driver, noting that a person’s ability to perceive what is on the road around them significantly decreases during a phone conversation.
Texting, Ward said, takes a person’s hands off the wheel, mind off of the task at hand and eyes off of the road.
Stop at any busy intersection and start studying the other drivers; more than likely, you’ll notice eyes down and hands out of sight — classic signs of texting behind the wheel. Ward said that 9 percent of drivers admit to distracted driving behaviors while stopped at a light, and 70 percent of these behaviors involve using a cell phone in some way.
“A high number of people admit that they do it,” she said. “But an equally-high number of people report that they are bothered when someone else does it … It’s pretty clear we feel justified when we do it.”
Deputy Kyle Rip with the Sammamish Police said that he frequently sees people at intersections not only sending a quick text, but also scrolling Facebook, staring at the social media site as if bored by driving.
Ward said that the problem could be cultural, noting that Americans do not like to feel that they are wasting a single moment.
“We’re always cramming a lot in — it’s a cultural norm to get a lot done,” Ward said. This means that drivers like to accomplish other tasks besides just getting from point A to point B. Whether this is holding a talk, text or social media conversation with a phone, drinking a latte, eating fast food, or using the rear view mirror to do hair or makeup, Ward said, “Single-task driving seems like a waste of time for us.”
And indeed, during a recent ride-along with the Sammamish Police, the Reporter observed different drivers at stoplights taking both hands off of the wheel in order to eat a hamburger and to style hair.
Rip and Ward noted that distracted driving patrols do not only target people on cell phones, but are meant to combat any behavior that takes a person’s hands and focus away from driving. Rip said he has pulled women over for putting on makeup while behind the wheel.
“There are too many things to see on the road to take your conversation away,” he said. “It’s not worth it.”
And those who see talking on a phone as less dangerous than other distracted behaviors can think again; Ward said that while a person’s eyes do not technically leave the road while on the phone, the act of holding a conversation severely inhibits the brain’s ability to process what it sees.
“Your vision is cut by half — you only see 50 percent of visual cues. Your vision physiologically changes when you’re having that conversation,” Ward said. “A lot of us underestimate what it takes for the brain to multitask. It’s out of your control.”
When a conversation gets emotional, the brain concentrates even less on perceiving hazards.
“You’re so focused on the conversation that driving becomes a secondary action,” Rip said.
Listening to the radio or an audiobook is not nearly as dangerous as a phone conversation, Ward said, because it is the act of engaging in the conversation that forces the brain to multitask to extreme extent. And a conversation with passengers in the vehicle is actually helpful, because passengers can point out possible hazards that the driver might have missed, or stop the conversation when driving conditions are changing.
“The person on the other side of the phone does not see what’s going on,” Ward said.
Rip said that distracted drivers are “typically the worst drivers on the road,” and that their driving tends to mirror that of drunk drivers. A distracted driver may swerve, have delayed reaction times, or fail to notice stop signs.
Distracted Driving Awareness Month patrols are part of Washington state’s Target Zero initiative, which aims to reduce fatal and serious injury crashes to zero by 2030.
The Washington Traffic Safety Commission is the state’s highway safety office, consisting of 22 employees and 10 commissioners headed by Governor Jay Inslee. The commission funds other campaigns throughout the year to increase seatbelt use and combat impaired driving.
Participating law enforcement agencies in North King County include the Bellevue Police Department, Clyde Hill Police Department Issaquah Police Department Lake Forest Park Police Department, Mercer Island Police Department, Newcastle Police Department, Port of Seattle Police Department, Redmond Police Department, Sammamish Police Department, Seattle Police Department, Shoreline Police Department, Snoqualmie Police Department and Washington State Patrol District 2.