Troopers and cops crack down on driving while cellphoning

Jun 8, 2011

Maybe you didn't get the word that the law changed last June: Using your cellphone while driving -- unless you have a hands-free connection -- is a primary offense in Washington.

That means officers can pull you over and write you a $124 ticket, even if you're otherwise obeying the traffic laws. It used to be only a secondary offense, meaning police had to see you speeding, or making an illegal turn, for example, before ticketing you.

The Seattle Times has figured out that Seattle Police have issued about six times as many cellphone tickets since the law changed, compared to the previous year, and the Washington State Patrol has issued about five times more tickets. 

Susan Gilmore at the Times added up records from the Washington State Patrol, and courts in Seattle and King County. 

Between mid-June 2009 and mid-June 2010, before the law changed and while the violation was still a secondary offense — meaning an officer needed another reason to stop the driver — the State Patrol pulled over 4,500 drivers for using their cellphones and cited 30 percent of them.

But in the past year, the Patrol pulled over 14,518 drivers and cited 47 percent of them. . . .

Julie Startup, a State Patrol officer in King County, said she cites almost everybody she pulls over for a cellphone violation, but said enforcement varies by troopers.

Gilmore goes on to describe some of the situations where a trooper might let you go (e.g. the roads are empty and it's late at night). And the article has some nice photos showing what's allowed and what's not (hint: using speakerphone while holding the phone away from your head is apparently okay ... but texting at a stoplight is not).

The officers quoted seem to believe that the law has made a difference, that fewer people are now holding phones while driving. Whether or not it's reduced crashes is hard to determine, because drivers won't admit they were on the phone. And the article doesn't say exactly how much revenue the state or local governments are earning from the tickets.