Driving Under the Influence of Electronics

Texting while driving laws in Washington state

By Judy Malmon, J.D. | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on July 6, 2023

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We should all be aware of the dangers of texting while driving.

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. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that distracted drivers were involved in 3,522—8.2 percent—of all traffic fatalities in 2021 alone. There are many thousands more serious injuries related to distracted driving every year.

Distracted driving can include any number of activities, from eating to talking or texting/posting on social media on a cell phone while driving—anything that takes your attention from the road.

Washington State’s Law Against Texting While Driving

In an effort to curb dangerous driving behaviors and increase public safety, most states have enacted distracted driving laws and are increasing law enforcement. 26 states have banned all hand-held cell phone 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. The law effectively makes 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.”

Under the state law, any manual activity related to the use of electronics is banned, including:

  • Sending text messages
  • Talking on the phone while holding it
  • 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 Distracted Driving

Monetary penalties for each DUIE offense may go 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 it also represents a significant number of potential offenders under the new law.

Sleep-Deprived Driving in Washington

Another threat to road safety is a condition dubbed “drowsy driving.”

Virtually every driver has experienced the state of momentarily nodding off. Studies and highway safety statistics have long demonstrated that driving in a state of extreme fatigue has parallels to drunk driving. 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.

Washington doesn’t have a specific drowsy driving law, but falling asleep while driving could be considered negligent driving in the second degree, a traffic infraction punishable with a $250 fine.

If a person’s second-degree negligent driving causes death or great/substantial bodily harm to a “vulnerable user of a public way,” penalties increase dramatically. The law defines “vulnerable users of a public way” to include pedestrians, bicyclists, and people riding a moped or motorcycle. Penalties include fines of up to $5,000 and the loss of driving privileges for 90 days.

You can take steps to prevent drowsy driving by recognizing the risk. According to the National Sleep Foundation, warning signs that you are too drowsy to drive include:

  • Difficulty focusing
  • Frequent yawning
  • Drifting from your lane
  • Memory lapses,
  • Missed road signs or exits

Getting an Experienced Washington Attorney

If you’re facing criminal charges related to distracted or drowsy driving, consider searching the Super Lawyers directory for a Washington criminal defense attorney with experience in traffic violations.

If you’re contemplating a civil lawsuit to get compensated for injuries resulting from a motor vehicle accident, consider contacting a Washington personal injury attorney. Many personal injury lawyers provide free consultations to learn more about your case.

For more information about this legal area, see our overview of traffic violations law.

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