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Tougher distracted driving law takes effect today

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Washington drivers will have to put down their phones or else face tougher penalties under a new distracted driving law that takes effect this weekend.

Texting or holding a phone to your ear is already against the law in the state, but the new measure now prohibits anything else that requires drivers to hold their electronic devices — including phones, tablets and other electronic gadgets — while behind the wheel. That means no reading of incoming text messages while driving, or watching a quick video while stuck in traffic or sitting at a red light.

"If you're on the road, you're off the phone," said Darrin Grondel, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

Under the measure, "the minimal use of a finger" to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of a personal electronic device while driving is still allowed.

The standard traffic fine of $136 would apply to a first offense but would increase to about $234 for a second offense. The first distracted driving offense would also be reportable to insurance companies, which could raise rates like any other moving violation.

Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste says drivers will just get warnings the first few months in order to give residents time to learn about the new law.

Another section of the new law also says a person who engages in "any activity not related to the actual operation of a motor vehicle" — like eating or putting on makeup — is subject to pay an additional fine of $99. It only applies if an officer catches a driver being distracted while committing a standard traffic offense, such as running a stop sign because their coffee spilled.

Exemptions under the law include using an electronic device to contact emergency services, or operating amateur radio equipment or two-way or citizens band radio services.

Amanda Essex, a transportation policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said that when Rhode Island's law is enacted next year, 15 states plus the District of Columbia will have hand-held bans on cell phones. The laws within each of those states vary, but five other states — Hawaii, Illinois, New Hampshire, Vermont and West Virginia — ban the use even when the vehicle is stopped in traffic or a light, as the new Washington law does.

Essex said that some laws are specific to making calls or text messaging, which others — as in California and West Virginia — refer more broadly to general use or operation of a handheld electronic device.

Republican Rep. Ed Orcutt, who voted against the measure in the Washington House, said that he believes that holding a cell phone while driving should be a secondary offense, not a primary one, and that troopers should focus on people who are clearly distracted and driving unsafely.

"Just the fact that they have a cell phone in their hand doesn't mean they're distracted," he said.

But proponents of the new law say that the new law will save lives.

Tina Meyer's 23-year-old son was working as a flagger at a construction site when he was hit by a driver distracted by his phone. He died several months later from his injuries. She said having a stronger law in place shows new drivers "that this is not acceptable behavior and that there will be consequences."

According to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, fatalities from distracted driving in Washington state increased 32 percent from 2014 to 2015. The commission says that 71 percent of distracted drivers are using their phones.

"Every single one of these collisions is in fact preventable," Batiste said.

Other new laws that take effect Sunday:

—Prosecutors will be able to file felony charges if a person gets a fourth DUI within 10 years. Under the new law, offenders would be sent to prison for 13 to 17 months, rather than serve shorter sentences in county jails.

—Courts will be allowed to issue permanent protection orders for victims of sexual assault. Currently, victims of sexual assault can only be granted a protection order for up to two years, which means they must reappear in court to repetition for a new order. Under the new law, those orders can now be made permanent. In cases where a permanent order isn't issued, under this new measure the courts will grant a renewal of the order unless perpetrators can prove they are no longer a threat to the victim.

—Creation of a new crime of theft involving a vulnerable adult any person 18 years or older who is clearly mentally or physically unable to care for himself or herself or suffers from a cognitive impairment. The new statute ranks the crime at a higher seriousness level of theft.

—Expansion of education program for inmates. A new law authorizes the state Department of Corrections to partner with community and technical colleges to provide associate degree programs, expanding existing programs at the state's prisons that provide basic education and job training. Priority for the programs would be given to inmates within five years of release. Those serving sentences of life without parole, or who are on death row, are ineligible.

—It will be illegal for a person to leave a dog tethered for a reckless period of time without providing him or her with adequate access to food, water and shelter. Dogs must also be placed in a safe and sanitary area that protects them from excessive heat or cold.

Lawmakers concluded a marathon triple overtime legislative session Thursday night, setting a new record with 193 consecutive days in session in a year. They left town without passing a $4 billion capital budget because of a dispute over water rights. Negotiations on that bill collapsed, and the Legislature adjourned without taking up either bill, though lawmakers say they will continue negotiations in hopes of being able to return to the Capitol for a one-day session for votes at a later date.