Washington’s distracted driving law makes coffee illegal?

Traffic law, Crime, News

Efforts around the country to crack down on distracted driving have been accelerating of late (so to speak), especially the use of cell phones for texting. And not a moment too soon: studies have shown that reading the average text message takes a driver’s view away from the road for 5 seconds, enough time to cover the length of a football field—at 55 miles per hour.

Washington law under scrutiny

Washington State is the latest jurisdiction to implement tougher laws against distracted driving, and some in the Evergreen State are anything but happy. The new law, which took effect July 23, 2017, forbids drivers from using almost any handheld device, including not just phones but also tablets, laptops, e-readers, and gaming gadgets.

In short, it prohibits drivers from reading, writing, or viewing messages, pictures, and data on a handheld device—even while stopped at a red light or a stop sign, or when mired in Seattle’s increasingly common stop-and-go traffic. The new law makes all these violations a primary offense, meaning police can use them as the sole reason to pull drivers over.

However, texting while driving was already a primary traffic law offense in Washington, as was driving while talking on a cell phone held to the ear. So the addition of bans on other handheld electronic gadgets hasn’t, beyond a few grumbles, provoked any discernible backlash.

Wait…can I still drink my coffee?

But what has aroused the ire of many Washington motorists is the new law’s prohibition against other distracting behaviors; namely, grooming and eating or drinking beverages while driving. Drivers in coffee-saturated Seattle are particularly outraged by the latter, and an online petition on Change.org garnered over 25,000 signatures within days of the new law taking effect.

What the petition fails to make clear, however, is that grooming and eating or drinking while driving are treated as secondary offenses under the new law, meaning drivers engaged in those distracting behaviors cannot be stopped unless they commit a separate primary offense, such as speeding or failing to signal.

Period of adjustment

The Washington State Highway Patrol plans to issue only warnings during the first several months under the new law, in the hope of educating motorists.

“Drivers are operating 4,000 pound pieces of metal, often at high rates of speed. That’s a big responsibility, and part of that is not dividing attention from the important task of driving safely,” says Josh King, Chief Legal Officer at Avvo. “It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the privilege of being licensed to drive is accompanied by the requirement that one not do so while distracted.”

Meanwhile, Washington drivers who need their caffeine fix should bone up on the rules of the road, and get more creative on ways to divert themselves while stuck in a backup.