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State House boldly defends right to look at Facebook while driving

The Washington State House of Representatives took a bold step Tuesday to defend the rights of people who choose to check Facebook while driving.

Distracted driving is one of the top three causes of fatal collisions involving young drivers. And the House is fine with that.

In fact, you can check email, Twitter, read the news, navigate Google Maps, look at porn, play a video game or watch a YouTube video, all activities that most people probably thought were already illegal while driving. But Washington’s texting and driving law didn’t adequately anticipate smart phones. The way it is written, the only activities you can’t do with your phone while you drive is send or read a text message or hold the phone to your ear and talk to someone.

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Send a text message while driving = Ticket. Like someone’s cute baby photo on Facebook while driving = Totally fine.

House Transportation Committee Chair Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) told the Herald that members understood the dangers posed by distracted drivers, but “when you go to someone and say you’re not going to be able to pick up your phone in the car you get a different reaction.” Huh? THAT’S THE POINT!

Senate Bill 5656 would have made it so “any person operating a motor vehicle while holding, reading from, or manually entering  information into a personal wireless communications device is guilty of a traffic infraction,” according to the bill analysis by House staff. It also would include increased penalties for repeat offenders. That seems like common sense, and the Republican-controlled Senate passed it 35-14.

But the bill failed to even make it out of the Democrat-controlled House Transportation Committee (member list here). In fact, there wasn’t even a committee vote.

“It is sad to see a decision of inaction on their behalf,” bill sponsor and Senator Ann Rivers (R-La Center) told the Herald. “We may well feel the pain of the House’s inaction.”

This is maddening. I had no idea this law was actually controversial. Seems like one of those no cost, no duh safety law updates that pass easily. 44 states have a texting and driving ban, and 14 have an updated hand-held device ban like the one that just died in the WA House. Is there really disagreement in our state about whether people should be allowed to play or work on their phones while they drive? While a lot of people do it, I assume they all know they’re doing something wrong.

But it gets worse: The Federal MAP-21 transportation package set aside money for states to use in anti-distracted driving campaigns. But one of the stipulations to get that funding is that your state have such a law (of course) and that your law includes increased penalties for repeat offenders. So by not passing this law, Washington probably can’t apply for that Federal money.

House Transportation Committee, what the hell? You really dropped the ball.

This tweet from KOMO’s Keith Eldridge is pretty much perfect.

The House is currently debating the state transportation package, and WA Bikes is pushing to make sure walking and biking safety gets a boost. But it’s gonna take action from all you and from House leaders to make it happen. Make up for your mistake, House, and provide bold funding for walking, biking and Safe Routes to School!

Stay tuned for more transpo package coverage.

UPDATE: Or maybe, as suggested at the bottom of the Herald report, it could be given new life during transpo funding discussions:

Clibborn said it “probably will do better next year,” then cautioned against declaring it dead this session, given that House Democrats and Senate Republicans are engaged in talks on budget and policy matters.

“Because it is a Republican bill and we’re doing negotiations, you never know what might come up,” she said.

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25 responses to “State House boldly defends right to look at Facebook while driving”

  1. Nathan Todd

    What about Google maps? Should that be outlawed?

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Using it while driving? yes. Setting before you start and letting it guide you? That’s fine. It’s the looking at it and touching the screen while driving that is most dangerous.

      1. Brandon Blake


    2. Josh

      Crowdsourced traffic mapping is extremely useful, but with modern phones, there’s no need to fiddle with it by hand while driving.

      We shouldn’t need a law specific to cell phones, distracted driving should cover it, but enforcement and precedent are too lax for that to work now.

  2. Nacim

    I obviously don’t support using your phone while operating a vehicle (and I often express as much when riding my bicycle by distracted drivers about to hit me), but I’m very skeptical about the effect anti-texting laws have. Once you make it illegal drivers compensate by hiding their phone further down out of view, which means they’re even less likely to pay attention to something in front of them. I don’t have a good solution.

    1. Brian

      I totally agree, but that seems like an enforcement problem. If the police actually issued citations for this it would be less of a problem. It’s not like it’s hard to find; one’s own crotch can’t be that interesting to stare at.

      1. CDug

        Speak for yourself. Mine’s a thing of beauty.

        On a serious note, a friend got pulled over because she was cutting her cuticles at a stoplight and the officer was convinced she was on her phone. Fortunately when you turn on the phone, it shows the last time it was active, so she got out of it.

  3. Marge Evans

    So ridiculous! Yet I’m required to wear a bicycle helmet. (shaking my head)

  4. Peri Hartman

    Besides phones, what about all the “smart” consoles in cars these days? My Leaf has a panel with symmetrically designed buttons that all look identical. If I want to change the volume of the radio, I’ll probably end up changing the vent fan speed. And if I want to put on the defroster, I pretty much need to stop the car first.

    We need to push for distracted driving protection and we also need to find a way to encourage ergonomic designs that don’t require attention to use.

    What kind of laws to other countries have, particularly in Europe?

  5. Southeasterner

    So if I’m understanding this correctly Democrats are opposed to the bill because it was proposed by Republicans?

    Amazing how completely dysfunctional politics are today that they won’t even vote on things they agree on because they won’t get the credit. (note I also realize Republicans do the exact same thing)

    1. Ben P

      She doesn’t even bother with subtlety. Do they really think that voters like partisan bickering? I just don’t understand how stopping a bill Democratic voters support is helpful for the democratic politicians.

    2. jay

      It gets even better, while Wikipedia does say:
      “Introduced in the House as H.R. 4348 by John Mica (R-FL) on April 16, 2012”
      Wikipedia also says:
      “The vote was 373-52 in the House of Representatives and 74-19 in the United States Senate; only Republicans voted against the bill.”
      And of course, it was signed into law by Obama, on July 6, 2012 !!! 3 months? how is that possible? MAP-21 is a whole lot bigger than the little distracted driving grants we are talking about here.

  6. Dan

    The NPR coverage this morning made it sound like this provision was also going to make it illegal to use your phone in all of these ways while stopped at a light as well. Frankly, I think you should be able to look up directions or dial a number while your vehicle is stopped.

    1. jay

      More than “sound like” the bill very specifically says exactly that:
      “18(3) For purposes of this section: (a) “Operating a motor vehicle” includes the operation of a motor vehicle while it is moving and while it is temporarily stationary because of traffic, a traffic21light, or a stop sign, and does not include when the vehicle has pulled over to the side of, or off, the roadway and has stopped in a location where it can safely remain stationary;”

      Do you really not see any flaws to your idea?
      Here is a hypothetical example, of course it doesn’t apply to you, but not every one is as carful of driver as you.
      Imagine someone stopped at a red light, waiting to make a left turn, they are playing with their phone and don’t notice the light change, the driver behind them (not you of course) lays on their horn, first driver looks up and sees a gap in the oncoming traffic directly in front of him and stomps on the accelerator, taking out 5 children in the cross walk who were crossing with a walk signal.
      While obviously you wouldn’t be that driver, are you sure that that won’t be one of your kids? remember, they were crossing with the walk signal, and when they looked both ways before crossing, our hypothetical driver was still stopped. Sure they should have noticed he was playing with his phone and expected the worst, but I’m talking about kids, we can’t expect them to do everything right all the time, that the adults job.

      1. Dan

        There are so many more things than your screens that can distract you while your stopped waiting at a light. You could be watching birds, watching someone on another corner or admiring architecture. Any of those could result in a similar scenario. Being distracted while your driving is dangerous and unacceptable. Making it illegal to distract yourself while your vehicle is stopped is to high a bar.

    2. Southeasterner

      The driver in me says absolutely not. If you need to look something up pull over to the side of the road and do it. On a daily basis I see cars stopped at green lights because the driver is looking down at their phone completely unaware of the light change. This is extremely annoying to other drivers and extremely dangerous as the first thing they do when they realize they are sitting on a green (usually a horn blast from behind them) is slam on the gas and blast through the intersection.

  7. ODB

    I’m not defending reading from a phone or texting while driving under any circumstances, even while stopped at a light. However, the bill apparently prohibits “holding” a phone or “manually entering information” while “operating a motor vehicle,” which includes “while it is temporarily stationary because of . . . a traffic light.” So, it would be illegal to pick up the phone and press a few buttons to initiate a hands-free call while stopped at a light. Likewise, even if you pulled over to initiate the call, it would be illegal press a button on the phone to terminate the call without pulling over. It would be illegal to press a button on the phone to skip to a new track on Pandora without pulling over, even though this is no different from looking down to change the channel on a car’s stereo. The bill’s sponsors should have drafted it more narrowly to address dangerous phone use while carving out innocuous use.

    1. Peri Hartman

      Draft a bill more narrowly and it will end up with all kinds of loopholes. I think this should be considered more a caveat-emptor kind of bill. In other words, the intent is don’t drive while you are distracted. If you tap a button to end a call, who’s going to know unless you have an accident? Anyway, it’s moot for now.

      1. ODB

        I agree that the likelihood of being cited under the proposed law for momentary use of a phone is small. On the other hand, caveat emptor means “let the buyer beware” and I’m wary of an argument based on the probability that a poorly-written law won’t actually be enforced as written. Courts don’t look to “intent” unless the statute is ambiguous.

    2. jay

      It was the Feds who came up with that wording, so the state bill’s sponsors don’t have much leeway.

    3. meanie

      If you’re playing with your phone while driving you’re an asshole.

    4. The first thing that requires extra attention with a phone is digging it out of your pocket and holding it. This requires an entire hand dedicated to holding the phone, extra attention to not dropping it if you’re moving, extra attention to look at the screen, which is more likely to be jostling around in relation to your face and more likely to be far from your view of the road.

      The second thing that requires extra attention is dealing with the phone interface. A standard car radio, even one with a touchscreen, keeps the screen on while the car is on and keeps the important buttons in obvious places so they can be used easily (even then, touchscreen car radios certainly require more visual attention than ones with physical buttons). Phones turn off their screens to save battery, and most apps aren’t designed to limit necessary attention with any rigor. Perhaps a driving-specific app like Waze is designed to keep drivers focused (I wouldn’t know personally; I’ve heard some encouraging and troubling things about it), but a music app probably isn’t. Even if an app is designed well, modern smartphones are multitasking computers, and it’s hard to guarantee any program will be responsive on a multitasking computer. An input device that doesn’t give clear, quick feedback that input was effective demands extra attention over a long period of time; touchscreens generally lack haptic feedback, and a multitasking computer can’t guarantee quick feedback otherwise — therefore, a phone that’s laggy or unresponsive, even showing a limited UI, could provide extra distraction.

      If you mount your phone, connect it to power and keep the screen always-on in this case, and exclusively use apps designed for driving… sure, go ahead. Otherwise, you can live with FM radio.

      1. ODB

        Al, I generally like your comments on this blog, but I don’t think this one is particularly well informed.

        Here is a hypothetical, which I think may be clarifying.

        I’m headed out to the mountains on I-90. It’s the weekend and traffic is light. I’m listening to Pandora with my iPhone plugged into my (old) car’s cassette deck. The current song starts to grate. The phone is out of my pocket when I drive (in fact, it couldn’t be plugged in otherwise). I pick it up with my right hand without looking because it’s always in the same place in the car. Using the thumb of the same hand, I push the phone’s physical button to activate the screen without looking. I raise the phone to dashboard level near the cassette deck without looking. I know the general location on the phone’s screen of the “forward” button to advance a song (upper right-hand corner). Without looking, based on the shape of the phone my hand, I position the thumb of the same hand over the button. For the first time, I look down and confirm the location of the button, and press down. I don’t need haptic feedback because I can hear when the song advances. My eyes were off the road for the fraction of a second it took to confirm the button’s location on the screen. How is that more dangerous than fiddling through radio stations on a normal car stereo–which involves multiple glances to determine where the various buttons are located, plus reading the display to determine what station is playing. The same goes for trying to locate and adjust the fan, defrost and heat controls. Not to mention trying locate food or water or a pair of sunglasses in the front seat area. Skipping a song on Pandora is less dangerous than any of these activities.

  8. JRD

    Distracted driving is a serious problem. If we can’t skip a Pandora track at our convenience anymore, it is worth it to save lives. Not to mention, in my experience at least, picking up the phone to do one simple thing can lead to doing more things.

    It would be nice to see a clear allowance for using your phone as a navigation device (although all information input should be completed while the vehicle is stopped). People who are lost tend to be distracted as well.

  9. […] Just because you can still check Facebook while driving, doesn’t mean you should. In fact, please […]

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