Texting while driving now illegal

Hands-free headset requirement soon to follow

The Washington State Patrol plans to "vigorously" enforce the state’s new law against sending text messages while driving.

The law took effect Jan. 1 and stands as a secondary violation, which means law enforcement cannot stop drivers if they see texting occurring but can issue a secondary violation if it accompanies another violation. The fine for texting while driving is $124.

"This is a commonsense law," Washington State Patrol Lt. Clint Casebolt said. "Texting takes a driver’s eyes off the road longer than what is safe, only to read, type and send a few words."

If a text message or cell-phone call requires immediate attention, Casebolt suggests finding a safe spot to temporarily pull over. He said the communications are often not emergencies and to respond could cause unsafe conditions to others in the vehicle or sharing the roadways.

"There is no driver on the road skilled enough to drive and text at the same time," State Patrol Chief John Batiste said. "Things happen too fast on the highway to take your eyes off the road long enough to read or type a message."

Casebolt said the new law falls right in line with a program Sequim Police Chief Robert Spinks is heading up called Project Zero.

"In order to keep collisions, injuries and fatalities at a minimum while aiming at zero total incidents, like what Chief Spinks is heading up, we need to realize driving is not secondary to things like cell phones," Casebolt said. "The Legislature also looked beyond texting at cell phone use in general."

Starting July 1, state patrol will enforce a law that prohibits cell phone conversations while driving. The only exceptions are for hands-free devices or to dial 9-1-1 in an emergency.

"This summer it will be illegal for any driver to hold a wireless device to their ear," Casebolt said. "Although it isn’t immediately required, we suggest people purchase hands-free devices right away to improve their safety."

Casebolt said wireless or Bluetooth earpieces as well as earpieces that have a wire connected to the phone are popular and legal alternatives to holding a phone while driving. He said many new vehicles have speakerphones built into their systems.

State Attorney General Rob McKenna warned Bluetooth users in December to turn off their wireless headsets when they are not in use. The wireless connection to the earpiece is not as secure as a phone’s connection to a local cell tower, making people’s personal information vulnerable.

"U.S. consumers together receive about 800 million unwanted text messages a year," a McKenna press release read Dec. 19. "(Also) if you have a smartphone or a personal digital assistant that functions like a personal computer, you may be at risk for receiving viruses and spyware."

McKenna suggests setting up spam filters provided by cell phone companies through their Web sites. One option is to block text messages sent from personal computers, a spammer’s mainstay. McKenna also said each phone comes with an e-mail address and changing that address through the phone company may make a phone less accessible to fraud or spam.

It is illegal under federal and state laws to send commercial e-mail or text messages to a wireless phone without permission.