Driver cellphone ban should be strictly enforced

In California, where police are tough on motorists using hand-held cellphones, traffic deaths have been reduced by 22 percent.

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Washington state's ban on hand-held cellphones while driving is a good law. The hard, cold fact is that driving with a cellphone to your ear is dangerous. Some studies have concluded it can be as risky as drunken driving.

But at this point it is a bit difficult to tell just how effective the law has been at saving lives because enforcing the cellphone ban does not seem to be a top priority. Stand on any street corner in Walla Walla and it won't take long to spot a driver yapping on a cellphone.

Ironically, the legality issue can be easily addressed by drivers if they simply get a hands-free device such as a Bluetooth or put their cell on speakerphone.

Nevertheless, we continue to believe lawmakers made the right decision in seeking to reduce the number of drivers with cellphones up to their ears.

And some statistics from California seem to bear that out. According to a study announced Monday by the California Office of Traffic Safety, since 2008 when the cellphone ban went into effect the total number of traffic deaths declined by 22 percent. The death-by-cellphone rate dropped 47 percent.

"Those are huge numbers," said state Sen. Joe Simitian, author of the legislation. The year after the law was implemented, the Highway Patrol reported 700 fewer fatal accidents, and there were 75,000 to 100,000 fewer collisions. The drop in collisions was the largest single year-to-year drop since such records have been kept.

A major reason for the decline in deaths and crashes is that California's drivers take the law seriously because it is strictly enforced. The base fine is only $20 -- as opposed to well over $100 in Washington state -- but the fact that it is regularly slapped on folks seems to be enough to get the message across.

"What's particularly heartening is the clear indication that the public gets it," Simitian said. "The driving public understands that this is risky behavior, and most people are complying. I think we've had very good results the first couple of years, but we're talking about changing a culture. Just as it took a great many years for people to buckle up routinely, and a great many years to change attitudes about drinking and driving, this is a behavior change that will take a little time."

Hmmm, Washington state's culture change appears to be moving at a glacial pace in comparison. Perhaps lawmakers should consider lowering the fine for using a cellphone inappropriately and then launch a campaign to crack down on scofflaws. It will save lives as evidenced by the stunning results in California.

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