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Find out how Washington’s new distracted driving laws may impact your injury claim
In 2017, after a year in which 155 people died from distracted driving in the Evergreen State (27.5% of all traffic fatalities), the Washington legislature passed 2 laws intended to reduce the number of accidents caused by distracted drivers.
The laws appear to have had a positive impact. Fatalities involving distracted drivers dropped an unprecedented 25% in the year after the laws were passed. However, there’s still a lot of confusion about what exactly you can and can’t do while driving in Washington.
In this article, we’ll take a look at Washington’s distracted driving laws, and we’ll explain how the laws might impact your personal injury claim if you or a loved one are injured by a distracted driver.
What is distracted driving?
The term “distracted driving” refers to any non-driving activity that diverts your attention from driving. The most common example is using a cell phone while driving, but there are many other types of distracted driving behaviors:
- Eating or drinking
- Talking to passengers
- Adjusting the radio
- Watching videos
Distracting activities tend to fall into 1 of 3 categories:
- Cognitive distractions take your mind off the road (for example, talking on the phone or to a passenger)
- Visual distractions take your eyes off the road (for example, watching videos or adjusting the radio)
- Manual distractions take your hands off the wheel (for example, grooming or eating)
Texting and driving falls into 3 categories of distractions, which is why it is particularly dangerous.
Washington state’s distracted driving laws
Washington’s Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act
In 2017, Washington passed the Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act (E-DUI). The law, which can be found in the Revised Code of Washington 46.61.672, is known as a “hands-free law” and prohibits drivers from using hand-held cell phones while operating a vehicle.
Let’s take a closer look at what is and isn’t allowed under the law:
|What’s allowed||What’s NOT allowed|
|✔ Drivers may use a hands-free device, such as Bluetooth.
✔ Drivers are allowed a single touch to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the hands-free device.
✔ Drivers may use a personal electronic device to contact emergency services.
|✘ Drivers may not use (or even hold) a personal electronic device while driving, stopped in traffic, or stopped at a stoplight.
✘ A “personal electronic device” includes any portable electronic device capable of wireless communication or electronic data retrieval (e.g., cell phone, tablet, laptop, two-way messaging device, or electronic game)
If you’re pulled over and charged with an E-DUI, you will receive a citation for $136. The fine will increase for subsequent violations. What’s more, all E-DUI citations will be reported to your insurance company, which will likely increase your insurance rates and may make it more difficult for you to get coverage.
Washington’s Dangerously Distracted law
In addition to Washington’s E-DUI law, Washington has a more general law that prohibits other types of distractions.
Washington’s Dangerously Distracted law can be found in the Revised Code of Washington 46.61.675. The law prohibits drivers from engaging in any activity that is not related to the actual operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of the motor vehicle.
Examples of prohibited activities include:
- Eating or drinking
- Applying makeup
- Adjusting the radio
- Reading a book
A violation of Washington’s Dangerously Distracted law is a “secondary traffic infraction,” which means law enforcement officers can’t stop a motorist for violating the law unless there’s a primary infraction being violated. In other words, the officer must have reason to believe the motorist has committed some other traffic violation such as speeding or running a red light.
A person who violates Washington’s Dangerously Distracted law will receive a minimum fine of $30.
How common is distracted driving?
Most people understand that distracted driving is dangerous. Nevertheless, many people continue to engage in dangerous distracted driving behavior. Consider the following statistics from the 2019 AAA Foundation Traffic Safety Culture Index:
- A majority of drivers view typing (96.2%), reading (94.3%), and talking (79.7%) on a hand-held cell phone while driving to be very or extremely dangerous.
- A majority of drivers support laws against distracted driving, with over 76% of drivers supporting a law against holding and talking on a cellphone and about 86% of drivers supporting a law against reading, typing, or sending a text or email while driving.
- Nevertheless, 43.2% of drivers report having driven while talking on a hand-held cell phone at least once in the past 30 days. What’s more, 38.6% report reading at least once and 29.3% report texting or composing an email on a hand-held cell phone while driving.
In 2018, the King County Target Zero Task Force sponsored a similar traffic safety culture index survey resulting in responses from 900 King County residents. Among King County adults:
- 13% reported talking on a hand-held cell phone and 34% reported talking on a hands-free cell phone regularly or fairly often while driving.
- 12% reported typing text messages and 20% reported reading text messages regularly or fairly often while driving.
- 18% reported using an application other than GPS regularly or fairly often while driving.
The statewide estimate of Washington’s driver distraction rate in 2019 was 6.8%. The driver distraction rate was highest on city streets (8.1%), followed by county roads (6.5%) and state routes (6.6%).
Tips to avoid distracted driving
Understanding that distracted driving is a problem with deadly consequences, the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) recently released the following 10 tips for avoiding distracted driving:
- Turn it off and stow it. Turn your phone off or switch it to silent mode before you get in the car. Then, stow it away so that it’s out of sight and reach.
- Spread the word. Record a message on your phone that tells callers you’re driving and will get back to them when you’re off the road, or enable this feature on your phone (if it is offered).
- Pull over. If you absolutely need to make a call or answer the phone, pull over to a safe area first.
- Use your passengers. Ask a passenger to make the call, answer the phone or respond to a text for you.
- Don’t text. Never text and drive, surf the web or read your email while driving. It’s dangerous and against the law in Washington.
- Know the law. Keep in mind that every state has different laws regarding distracted driving. Familiarize yourself with the laws of each state that you plan to drive through.
- Prepare. If using your phone for GPS or listening, get everything ready before you start to drive. If you prefer a map or written directions, review them in advance.
- Secure your pets. Unsecured pets can be a big distraction in the car.
- Mind the kids. Pull over to a safe place to address situations involving children in the car.
- Focus on driving. Multi-tasking behind the wheel is dangerous. Refrain from eating, drinking, reading, grooming, smoking, and any other activity that takes your mind and eyes off the road.
How does distracted driving impact a personal injury claim in Washington?
Motor vehicle accident lawsuits are generally based on the legal concept of negligence.
In Washington, negligence is defined as “the failure to exercise reasonable care to prevent harm to someone else on the road.” If the plaintiff can prove that the defendant was using a cell phone (or engaging in some other distracting activity) when the accident occurred, they can generally establish negligence.
What’s more, if the defendant received a citation for violating one of Washington’s distracted driving laws, the defendant will be presumed negligent and the defendant will have the burden of proving that they didn’t cause the accident. This is referred to as “negligence per se.”
What to do (and not do) after an accident caused by a distracted driver
The steps you should take following an accident caused by a distracted driver are similar to the steps you should take after any car accident, with a couple of differences:
- Step 1. Obtain medical help for anyone who needs it (including yourself). Washington requires drivers to render “reasonable aid” to anyone injured in a motor vehicle accident. This means calling 9-1-1 if someone is hurt.
- Step 2. Call the police. The police will conduct an investigation and file a police report. You might be surprised at what an officer is able to find out about the at-fault driver’s actions in the moments before the crash.
- Step 3. Gather any evidence you can find. Distracted driving can be difficult to prove, so it’s important to obtain any evidence that might be available. If there are witnesses, take down their contact information. Similarly, make note of anything the at-fault driver or their passengers say that might implicate them.
- Step 4. Find an experienced personal injury attorney. Your lawyer will be able to conduct their own investigation into the accident. This may include requesting the other driver’s phone records to prove they were using their phone at the time of the accident, or deposing the passengers to find out what they observed the driver doing in the moments before the crash.
- Step 5. Avoid talking about the accident on social media. One of the first things a defense attorney will do is review all of your social media accounts for information that may hurt your case. The wisest course of action is to avoid posting about the accident altogether.
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