Distracted driving:  Legislation aims to get drivers’ attention off their phones and back on the road 

Twenty-three-year-old Cody Meyer loved hiking at Wallace Falls in Gold Bar, Washington, and lighting off fireworks on the Fourth of July. He spent time playing video games with his father and brother and hanging out with his girlfriend, Nicole.   

Arlington resident Tina Meyer describes her son, Cody, as her best friend. 
“The one thing that a lot of people don’t get with their boys is affection as they get older,” Tina said. “Cody was the type of man who would always give me a kiss on the lips.” 

Cody was working as a construction flagger on Cedar Grove Road near Issaquah on Dec. 15, 2015, when a jeep estimated traveling at 40 mph struck him. The driver, Andrew Richwine, had glanced down at his phone.

Legislation proposed this session — SB 5289 and HB 1371 — would prohibit drivers from using their cell phones while driving. Distracted driving occurs when the driver engages in activities that hinder his or her ability to safely operate a motor vehicle on a highway. Both bills passed their respective house of origin.

SB 5289 was passed by both the House and the Senate last week. Next, Gov. Inslee will determine whether to veto or sign the bill into law. 

Meyer was rushed to Harborview Hospital in Seattle on that December date with a traumatic brain injury, a torn kidney, bruising on his lungs, and a broken leg. 

As his mother entered the hospital, she was already making plans to build a ramp in the house to help Cody move around more easily in a wheelchair.
“I wasn’t accepting what I was seeing, as bad as it was,” Tina Meyer said. “I was already making the plans to get him home to take care of him” 

Tina Meyer visited Cody at the hospital each day. She arrived at seven in the morning and began taking care of her son. Everyday, Cody’s family and the Harborview staff looked for purposeful movement. 

Twenty days after Cody arrived at the hospital, he puckered up his lips to give his mother a kiss — his first purposeful movement. 

Cody was transferred to Kindred Hospital in Seattle in January, 2016, to continue his recovery. He was unable to speak, but could communicate through movements such as thumbs up and thumbs down signs. One day, he flipped off his aunt after she played Taylor Swift’s song “Shake it Off” and grabbed Cody’s hands and started dancing with him.

“That was his character, he was a screwball,” said Tina. “For him to turn around and flip my sister off like that, it was him.” 

Tina Meyer said her son was there mentally, but was struggling physically. He had been diabetic since childhood, so his broken leg wouldn’t heal. 

On May 23, 2016, his brother’s birthday, Cody was transferred to Josephine Sunset Rehabilitation Center in Stanwood. The next day Cody suffered a massive heart attack due to complications from his accident. He was rushed to Everett’s Providence Hospital where he died.  
April is designated by the National Safety Council as Distracted Driving Awareness Month. 

In 2015, 167 people died in Washington in accidents involving a distracted driver. 
Apr. 12, the House passed an amended SB 5289, sponsored by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, which would prohibit drivers from using a portable electronic device while driving. This includes using fingers to read, view, browse, save, retrieve messages, or watch videos. Holding a mobile device in one or two hands would also be banned. 

Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, rose in opposition to the bill during the House floor debate because, he said, the legislation goes too far.  

“If there’s not some other infraction that’s going on or some sign that they’ve actually been distracted by having that [a phone] in their hand, I don’t think they should be pulled over,” he said. He believes it would be more reasonable to classify holding a phone while driving as a secondary offense or infraction.
Officers now can only stop motorists for primary traffic infractions. An officer can only pull a driver over for a secondary traffic infraction when the driver is committing another infraction, such as speeding. 

Rep. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane Valley, also voted to oppose the bill. He said during the Apr. 12 House floor debate that he’s afraid SB 5289 would target lower income populations who may not be able to afford vehicles that sync up with portable electronic devices and provide hands-free use of cell phones. 
Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma, voted in favor of the bill. He explained during the House debate that distracted drivers sometimes hold up traffic. 

“We do so many things down here to try and fix traffic congestion and to keep people moving and these folks [distracted drivers] are just a menace and we need to do something to get their attention,” he said. “I think this bill is exactly the right idea and I urge your support.” 

SB 5289 struggled Tuesday and Wednesday last week before finally gaining Senate approval after it had earlier rejected House amendments. Finally, last Wednesday, the House withdrew its major amendments, approving the bill on a 61-36 vote. The Senate gave its final support on a 39-10 vote late Wednesday. The measure now heads to the governor for his signature. If signed, it takes effect Jan. 1, 2019.

An amendment adopted Apr. 12 specified insurance companies would be notified if drivers received two or more fines for using an electronic device within five years. That section of the bill was redacted before final passage, which means that drivers’ insurance companies will not be notified of distracted driving infractions.

A companion bill, HB 1371 sponsored by Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, passed the House, but failed to gain Senate consideration this session
Distracted driving affected Senator Rivers personally. She’s prime-sponsor of SB 5289.

A distracted motorist had struck her husband’s car. He didn’t suffer injuries, but the car had extensive damage. 

During her frequent drives between the Capitol in Olympia and her home in La Center, north of Vancouver, Washington, Rivers says she often observes cars weaving, which she associates with someone using a cell phone. 

“You would think people would realize they are driving a two-ton vehicle that could cause a lot of damage,” she said. “My hope is that SB 5289 will cause people to wake up and become accountable not only to themselves but to others.”

So does Tina Meyer whose son died from injuries when struck by a distracted driver.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission reports that one in 10 people are distracted while driving on the roads in this state. Seventy percent of observed distracted drivers were using cell phones. 

According to a study by Dr. David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, cell phone use can cause inattention blindness. Talking on a cell phone while driving diverts the driver’s attention to the phone conversation and away from the road, which can lead the driver to fail to see traffic signals or other signs. 

If SB 5289 becomes law, a base fine of $48 and a total fine of $136 could be applied the first time someone is pulled over for using a portable electronic device when driving. 

Drivers who are caught using a portable electronic device a second time would receive a base fine of $96 and a total fine of up to $235. 

The base penalties would go to the Distracted Driving Prevention account, which would fund programs geared toward reducing distracted driving.

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