Washington’s Cellphone-Use and Texting-While-Driving Laws

Read about Washington’s distracted driving laws and the consequences of a violation.

Washington has two distracted driving laws: one that applies specifically to electronic device use, and another that prohibits distracted driving in general. This article gives an overview of these offenses and the penalties for a violation.

Personal Electronic Device Use

Washington’s more specific distracted driving law prohibits driving on a public highway while using a “personal electronic device.”

Driving. For purposes of the personal-electronic-device-use law, the definition of “driving” isn’t limited to having a vehicle actually in motion—it also includes momentary stops such as when a driver is waiting in traffic or at a red light. However, it’s okay for a driver to use an electronic device after pulling over to a safe spot at the side of or off the road.

Personal electronic device. The statute defines “personal electronic device” as any portable electronic device capable of wireless communication or electronic data retrieval, including cellphones, tablets, laptops, two-way messaging devices, and video games. The definition, however, doesn’t include devices manufactured primarily for hands-free operation or two-way radios.

Device Use. Washington has an expansive definition of “use.” For purposes of the personal-electronic-device-use law, “use” means:

  • holding a device in either or both hands
  • using a hand or finger to compose, send, read, view, access, browse, transmit, save, or retrieve an email, text message, instant message, photograph, or any other electronic data (not including minimal use of a finger to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the device), and
  • watching video on a device.

Exceptions. Washington’s electronic-device-use ban has several exceptions. The law doesn’t apply to:

  • a driver using a device to contact emergency services
  • a person operating an emergency vehicle
  • a transit systems employee using a device to transmit time-sensitive information to a transit dispatcher, or
  • certain commercial drivers who are authorized by federal law to use an electronic device while driving.

Penalties. Unlawful electronic device use while driving is a traffic infraction. For a first electronic-device-use violation, a driver is looking at a $48 base fine. A second or subsequent offense carries a $96 base fine. However, assessments and fees are added to the base fine and will significantly increase the amount a convicted driver actually pays for a violation.

(Wash. Rev. Code Ann. §§ 46.61.0001, 46.63.110 (2017); WA R INFR LTD JURIS IRLJ 6.2 (2017).)

Distracted Driving

Washington’s more general distracted driving law prohibits driving while “dangerously distracted.” A driver is considered “dangerously distracted” if engaged in an activity—not related to the operation of the vehicle—that interferes with the driver’s ability to operate the vehicle safely.

Enforcement. Distracted driving is a secondary traffic infraction—meaning law enforcement can’t stop a motorist for distracted driving unless there’s an independent reason for doing so. In other words, the officer must have reason to believe the motorist has committed some other traffic violation such as speeding or running a red light—distracted driving alone can’t be the basis for the stop.

Penalties. The base fine for distracted driving is $30. But with fees and assessments, the amount a driver pays may be close to $100.

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