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Michigan can learn from Washington’s distracted driving law

August 7, 2017 by Steven M. Gursten

The Evergreen State’s new distracted driving law makes holding phone, eating and putting on makeup while driving illegal — even while stopped in traffic. Michigan, let’s take its cue

Washington’s distracted driving law

Readers of our Michigan Auto Law blog know the distracted driving crisis in Michigan has reached critical mass, and that we need a legislative solution with serious penalties to curb the rising numbers of car accidents caused by distracted driving. This sharp spike in crashes caused by distracted driving is something I spoke last week about at a national webinar by Strafford aimed at teaching injury lawyers how to discover and prove distracted driving-related car accidents, and I’ll be talking to the Michigan Association for Justice next month on teaching lawyers in Michigan how to find evidence of distracted driving as well. Part of my message has been that Michigan can do a better job with both new legislation and stronger law enforcement to stop this safety crisis. We can start by looking to Washington state as a good example of where to begin.

On July 23, 2017, the Evergreen State’s new distracted driving law went into effect. Drivers there are now prohibited from holding not just cellphones but other electronic devices while on the road. In addition, drivers can’t hold them while stopped at a red light or a stop sign — closing a loophole that other state laws have let pass. This is similar to House Bill 4466, Michigan’s proposed legislation to ban cellphone use.

Washington’s law also makes driving under the influence of electronics (yes, that is an actual legal term) a primary offense, meaning a police officer can pull a driver over solely for holding a cellphone. The first-offense fine is $136, and any other offense within five years bumps up the fine to $234. And because distracted-driving citations would be reported on state driving records, that driver’s insurance rates will likely increase, too.

But the law goes a step further by making grooming (such as applying makeup, shaving or fixing hair) or eating while driving a secondary offense. This means a ticket may be issued for that if an officer pulls a driver over for a different offense, such as speeding or a dangerous lane change. A $99 fine would be imposed.

Distracted driving car accidents in Michigan and nationwide continue to soar

As an auto accident attorney, I’ve had firsthand experience with the dangerous consequences of distracted driving. It accounts for numerous car crash injury and death cases that I and the other lawyers at Michigan Auto Law litigate.

Distracted driving car accidents in Michigan increased approximately 138% from 2014 to 2016, according to Michigan State Police Criminal Justice Information Center data. Further, distracted driving-related injuries increased approximately 112% from 2014 to 2016.

As for motor vehicle accident fatality rates stemming from texting while driving and through other cellphone use? The numbers jumped 50% since 2015 and skyrocketed 200% since 2014.

Cellphones aren’t the only bad distracted driving habit

Our lawmakers have made efforts to impose harsher distracted driving penalties. HB 4466, which is pending, is similar to Washington’s; it targets not just texting while driving, but also watching videos, playing games and web surfing.

This measure would increase Michigan’s penalties for texting while driving by raising the fine for first offenders to $250 (up from $100) and $500 for second or subsequent offenses (up from $200). Also, the distracted driver would get points — 1 would be added to the driver’s record for a second offense, while third or subsequent offenders would get 2 — instead of simply paying a fine under the current law.

While Washington’s penalty fees are nearly half of what HB 4466 calls for, I’m sure the second part of its law will make up for it. After all, decades before cellphones became our lifelines, drivers developed bad distracted-driving habits that carry over to this day. They’d brush their hair, give their cheeks a quick once-over with the electric razor or put a little more lipstick on. After a drive-thru pit stop, they’d have one hand on the wheel and the other hand reaching for a burger and fries.

These driving habits are also examples of distracted driving, and they now qualify as secondary offenses in Washington. There is an opportunity to educate the public about how dangerous and distracting these driving habits can be, especially for teen drivers before they learn to think of these dangerous driving habits as acceptable behavior behind the wheel. If we want to reduce distracted driving car accidents, a distracted driving law has to include more than just texting and cellphones.

Washington’s distracted driving law makes very clear that distracted driving is serious enough that a police officer can now pull over a driver simply for holding a cellphone, even if the driver is not actually using it. By targeting the cause of so many car crashes, the new law hopefully will help prevent the effect. It will help put our focus back on the driving — which is after all what a driver should be doing.

Michigan would do well to follow Washington’s lead.

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