Driving Under the Influence of Electronics

Texting while driving laws in Washington state

By Judy Malmon, J.D. | Last updated on January 19, 2023

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We should all be aware of the dangers of texting while driving. The National Highway Safety Administration reports that in 2015, 391,000 injuries and nearly 3,500 fatalities in the U.S. involved distracted drivers. Distracted driving can include any number of activities, including eating, fiddling with the stereo or GPS, putting on makeup, or talking or texting/posting on social media on a cellphone while driving—anything that takes your attention from the road. If you have any lingering doubts about your own need to put the phone away when you  get behind the wheel, consider that reading or sending a single text takes your eyes off the road for five seconds. At 55 miles per hour, that’s like driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed.

Texting While Driving

In an effort to curb these behaviors and increase safety for all on the road, most states have enacted distracted driving laws and are stepping up enforcement. Twenty-four states have banned all hand-held cellphone use by motorists. In 2017, the state of Washington legislature enacted one of the most sweeping new distracted driving laws in the nation, entitled the Driving Under the Influence of Electronics (DUIE) Act, effectively making it a violation to use any personal electronic device for any purpose other than an emergency when driving a vehicle, including when stopped in traffic. It is legal to use a device when parked over to the side of the road, remaining “safely stationary.” The law went into effect just 90 days after passage, July 23, 2017. Under the state law, any manual activity related to a use of electronics is banned, including sending text messages, talking on the phone while holding it, or looking at or taking photos. These activities are illegal whether moving or stopped at a red light, stop sign, or in traffic. A dashboard mount may be used for hands-free talking or for a GPS, but not for viewing video or other uses. Penalties for a first DUIE offense include a fine of $136 and a report on your driving record, which could result in higher insurance rates. For a second offense, the fine goes up to $250. As a primary offense, you don’t need to have committed any other driving error, you can be cited for phone use alone. A Washington Traffic Safety Commission study found that approximately 1 in 10 drivers is holding a device while driving. Clearly, this contributes to the epidemic of distracted driving on the roads, but also represents a significant number of potential offenders under the new law. It remains to be seen how effective the law will be with current law enforcement capacity.

Sleep-Deprived Driving

Another threat to road safety is a condition dubbed “drowsy driving.”  Studies and highway safety statistics have long demonstrated that driving in a state of extreme fatigue has parallels to drunk driving—and virtually every driver has experienced the state of momentarily nodding off. National Institutes of Health research found that not sleeping for 20 hours or more causes cognitive and motor impairments comparable to a blood alcohol content of .05 percent to 0.1 percent. The precise impact of drowsy driving is difficult to measure, but estimates are that fatigue contributes to as many as 1.2 million crashes per year. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) 2015 Annual Collision Summary reported that 3,161 accidents resulted from a fatigued, asleep, or ill driver. While many believe that enacting criminal penalties for sleep-deprived driving will help to raise awareness and fuel prevention efforts, prosecution even where statutes are in place remains limited, due to virtually insurmountable proof issues. The driver is typically the only one to know how long they’ve been awake, and unlike a blood alcohol test for drinking, there is no way to test someone’s level of fatigue. Washington does not have a specific drowsy driving law, but falling asleep while driving is considered negligent driving, a first degree criminal offense subject to a $550 fine. You can take steps to prevent drowsy driving by recognizing the risk. The National Sleep Foundation states that fatigue-related accidents are most common in young men, adults with small children, and shift workers. Warning signs that you are too drowsy to drive include:
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Heavy eyelids, frequent yawning
  • Drifting from your lane
  • Memory lapses, missed road signs or exits
  • Feeling restless or irritable
If you need more information about distracted or drowsy driving defense, contact a Washington DUI attorney. If you’re considering initiating a civil claim arising from a distracted or drowsy driving accident, contact a Washington personal injury attorney. If you’d like more general information about this area of the law, see our DUI/DWI law overview.

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