This Washington

House Transportation Committee Tackles Texting

By Josh Cohen January 19, 2010

In a drawn-out, nit-picking public hearing on Monday, the House Transportation committee debated the language and intent of Seattle Rep. Reuven Carlyle's (D-36) anti-cell-phones-while-driving bill, HB 2635. I covered the bill previously, but to recap, the bill would make it a primary offense to hand hold a cell phone or send texts while driving.

Currently, talking (without a headset) and texting are illegal, but they are secondary offenses, meaning the police cannot pull you over for cell phone use unless they catch you  doing something else illegal first, like speeding. This bill would allow police to pull you over and ticket you if they see you on the phone while driving, regardless of whether you were driving poorly. It specifies exemptions for hands free headsets, emergency situations, reporting crimes, and of course emergency vehicles.

In his testimony, Rep. Carlyle said that he has a "strong libertarian streak" and questioned when it's right to regulate personal freedoms. (The lefty civil libertarians at the ACLU have not taken a position on the bill, nor have the conservative libertarians at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.) But, in Rep. Carlyle's mind, the evidence that cell phone use increases danger for everyone on the road is too overwhelming not to act. He testified that driving while texting is equivalent to driving with a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit. He also cited a Department of Transportation study that said 25 percent of all crashes are connected to cell phone use.

Some committee members seemed stuck on the minutiae of the bill. Yakima County Rep. Norm Johnson (R-14) repeatedly said that eating, applying makeup, and reading in the car are equally distracting and questioned why they too weren't in this legislation. Wenatchee Rep. Mike Armstrong (R-12) took the nit-picking a step further when he asked Rep. Carlyle if he'd considered strengthening the definition of "motor vehicle" in the bill.

"Does that pertain to boats with motors in them, airplanes, or trains that are traveling in our state?" asked Armstrong. "Where is that definition of a motor vehicle?"

Some members had seemingly more substantive issues with the bill. San Juan County Rep. Jeff Morris (D-4) said the bill as written will hurt lower-income drivers.

"My biggest concern with this law, because it was so poorly written, is that the only people that will end up paying the ticket on this are the people least able to maneuver the system," said Rep. Morris.

The bill had a strong showing of supporters testifying at the hearing. Physicians, citizens, interest groups,  Department of Licensing director Liz Luce, Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste, and others spoke about safety issues, personal experience with distracted drivers, and statistical evidence. A Seattle cyclist recounted her experience being hit by a driver talking on his cell phone and being left with lifelong injuries. A blind Seattle man highlighted the extraordinary danger distracted drivers pose to the blind and vision impaired community.

In what was arguably the cutest testimony in Olympia that day, Rep. Carlyle's neighbor and Seattle 5th grader Noah Sarkowsky took to the stand.

Noah explained that he is a crossing guard at his elementary school and that drivers talking on their cell phones are making his job harder and harder. Once, a parent talking on their cell phone almost ran over Noah and his fellow crossing guard.

"If we hadn't run out of the way I'm pretty sure we would of been hit," Noah said. "Obviously he was paying more attention to his call because we were wearing yellow vests and holding neon yellow flags."

Show Comments