IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

New law bans hand-held phones while driving

Driving with one hand on the wheel and the other on a cell phone is no longer an option for Washington state drivers.
June 25, 2008
A freeway overpass sign reminds California drivers abut the new 'Hands-Free Phone" law taking effect July 1 that will require hands-free devices for motorists who want to talk and drive. Jose Luis Villegas / Zuma Press
/ Source: The Associated Press

Driving with one hand on the wheel and the other on a cell phone is no longer an option for Washington state drivers.

On Tuesday, they join more than 28 million others nationwide who have to hang up their cell phones or use hands-free devices. Violators can face a $124 ticket.

"We'll continue to see more legislation as more devices go in a car," said Matt Sundeen, who has monitored cell phone laws for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "A lot of people agree these types of devices are distracting, but the real question is — are they so distracting they need some type of restriction?"

California and Washington are just the latest states to enact laws that prohibit the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. Both state permit hands-free devices.

This past year, 22 state legislatures considered similar laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A handful of states — like New York and New Jersey — already have laws in place. Lawmakers in Louisiana recently sent a bill to the governor's desk.

Advocates say laws have little impact
But traffic-safety advocates say the new laws will have little impact.

"Laws like Washington's probably will have a big effect on making people feel good about passing a law but zero effect on highway safety," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Virginia-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

However, the new laws could have a big effect on businesses that sell headsets and related projects.

In an investors report issued last week, analysts at Morgan Keegan said they expect a revenue increase of at least $12 million in sales from California and Washington from June into August for Plantronics Inc., a California-based headset manufacturer.

A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that drivers using cell phones are four times more likely to be in an accident. That study suggested that limiting cell phone usage to hands-free devices doesn't have much of an effect.

It's the talking that distracts people, traffic-safety advocates say.

"If you continue to allow hands-free phoning, you haven't addressed the safety problem," Rader said.

In 2007, there were more than 141,000 collisions in Washington state, and reports on 158 of them listed "operating" a hand-held device — such as a cell phone or an MP3 player — as a contributing factor, according to the state patrol.

"What we're trying to get across is that when you're driving, you need to be driving," said patrol Sgt. Freddy Williams. "It's going to help keeping both hands on the wheel, but you need to focus on driving, especially at freeway speeds."

Mixed results in other states
New York, the first state to pass a law against hand-held cell phone chatting, issued more than 81,000 tickets in 2002, the first full year the law was in place. By 2007, the number of tickets jumped to more than 312,000, according to the New York Department of Motor Vehicles.

New York State Police Lt. Glenn Minor attributes the increase in tickets to police officers becoming more accustomed to looking for the violation.

In North Carolina, which banned teenagers from using cell phones while driving, cell phone use increased after the law took effect, the insurance institute report said. Teen drivers didn't think the law was being enforced.

Among people on Seattle streets, reaction to the new Washington state law was mixed, although people agreed that using a cell phones is a distraction and may lead to accidents.

"I've been in close calls ... because I was not paying attention," said Tony Championsmith, 55, who bought a headset after his latest close call. "Luckily, the other drivers were paying attention."

But 76-year-old Barry Jackson was disappointed that the new law allows headsets. He said conversation is the distracting factor and that letting people continue talking doesn't help.

"Why have the law then?" Jackson said.