State lawmakers to try to ban all handheld cellphone use while driving

SEATTLE — With distracted driving fatalities up in Washington, some lawmakers will be back this year fighting cellphone use in cars.

Distracted driving deaths went up by 30% in Washington from 2014 to 2015. According to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, there were 130 deaths in 2014 attributed to distracted driving and 171 deaths in 2015.

For Gina Bagnariol-Benavides, that`s more than a statistic; the grief of losing her older sister comes with a lot of anger.

“So hard because it was so preventable; there is a tendency immediately towards anger,” Benavides said.

In July, Jody Bagnariol and her best friend Elisabeth Rudolph had come to a complete stop on southbound I-5 because of traffic in Lewis County. That`s when a young woman rear-ended them at 76 mph.

“Zero attempt to divert or brake,” Benavides said.

Gina says the driver admitted that her husband in the passenger seat was trying to take a selfie of them right before the accident.

“How was that normal for her? And, sadly, it`s become normal for so many people,” Benavides said.

State Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, says cellphone use while driving is an epidemic so she plans to introduce the Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act when the legislative session begins next week.

In Washington, you can’t have your phone up to your ear while you are driving but you can hold it away from you and talk on the speaker. Lawmakers say the data shows that is still dangerous so now they want all of us to put our phones down or risk getting a ticket.

“Your cognitive function is so severely impaired when you are typing into your phone that we have to make the law very clear and say don`t hold your phone while you are driving,” Farrell said.

But there are exceptions.

“You can still use the voice-activated cellphone or voice-activated GPS -- you can use all those functions,” Farrell said.

You can also talk on your phone through Bluetooth and as long as your phone is on the dash giving you directions.

But if drivers are holding their phone and using it, lawmakers want police to cite drivers and for their insurance companies to find out.

“Literally our law says you can’t text while you are driving but if a cop pulls you over you could say, 'Oh, I was checking the weather or I was putting in an address,'” Farrell said.

Lawmakers say Washington`s distracted driving law from 2008 is outdated because it only spells out texting as an issue.

“They are Snapchatting, they are Facebooking,” Benavides said of distracted drivers.

Benavides said laws need to evolve just like technology and she`s sharing her pain to remind us of the consequences of distracted driving.

“I don`t have the words to describe how much I miss her, it`s a void that will never be filled,” Benavides said.

Gina’s sister Jody was 63 years old. Gina says her sister was known for her undying spirit. Before the accident, Jody had moved back to Washington from Oregon to start a new chapter in her life. She leaves behind eight siblings -- so many lives impacted because of one distracted driving incident.