POULSBO — July 24 will mark one year since a law was introduced in Washington that was intended to combat distracted driving. The Driving Under the Influence of Electronics law prohibited drivers from holding phones and other electronic devices while operating a vehicle.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,450 people were killed by distracted drivers in 2016. According to the Washington State Patrol, troopers in Kitsap County conducted 189 traffic stops involving distracted drivers from July 2016 to June 2017, and that number climbed to 235 distracted drivers from July 2017 to June 2018.
First time violators of the DUIE law face a $136 fine, but if caught using a device while operating a vehicle again within five years, that fee climbs to $234. Information concerning DUIE violations is also provided to insurance companies and can result in increased insurance costs.
In December, Poulsbo was rocked by two back-to-back incidents wherein pedestrians were struck by vehicles. A Washington State Patrol investigation found that distracted driving was not to blame in either of the incidents, but they did spur the city of Poulsbo to form a Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee.
During a meeting of the committee in February, Charlie Roberts, an engineering technician for the city, explained just how serious of an issue distracted driving had become in recent years.
“Looking just at Poulsbo, between 2007 and 2011, distracted driving was a factor in about 18.5 percent of crashes,” Roberts said. “Between 2012 and 2017, it’s more than doubled — 46.1 percent of crashes were caused by distracted driving.”
Poulsbo Police Officer David Gesell added to Roberts’ comments. Gesell said he believed that the true number of crashes influenced by distracted drivers was, in fact, much higher.
“Those numbers are going to come off of our collision reports,” Gesell said, “and if you’re playing on your phone and you crash into someone, you’re not terribly likely to tell me you were doing that.”
According to statistics provided by the Washington State Patrol’s Collision Enforcement database, since SB 5289 was passed, Kitsap County has seen a 22 percent decrease in the number of distracted driving crashes. Between July 2016 and June 2017, there were a total of 36 distracted driving crashes throughout Kitsap County. Between July 2017 and June 28, that number had dropped to 28.
Washington State Patrol Sergeant Scott Gordon said the drop is a sign that drivers are catching on and that traffic safety is moving in the right direction.
“We’re just striving for the number of crashes to go down,” Godon said. “You look at those numbers, something is actually working for us with roughly a 22 percent decrease over almost two years.”
The sergeant said he was willing to bet that the decrease was the direct result of increased distracted driving enforcement, in conjunction with educational outreach by law enforcement. Gordon likened the implementation of the distracted driving law to seatbelt laws when he first began his career with the Washington State Patrol.
“When I first got hired, a seatbelt violation was a secondary violation. You couldn’t just stop somebody for a seatbelt,” Gordon said. “I grew up in a time when my seatbelt was my mom or my dad putting their arm across my chest. You have to change people’s mindset on these things and it’s a slow process. … Now with education, you get more people cognizant about the law.”
Gordon acknowledged that the distracted driving law wouldn’t stop everyone from driving while distracted, but with time, that might change.
“Are people going to still be distracted driving? Sure, everybody’s not just going to one day magically just put their phone down or quit doing other things while they’re driving. But it’s that element of enforcement that helps get people to change their behavior,” the sergeant said. “You change people’s behavior, and that’s what’s happening with distracted driving.”
—Nick Twietmeyer is a reporter with Kitsap News Group. Nick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org