Put down the phone | Editorial

Unless you don’t own a cell phone or have incredible willpower, you’ve likely used an electronic device while driving.

A new Washington state law that prohibits the use of nearly all handheld gadgets like phones, tablets and gaming devices while driving goes into effect on July 23. Drivers also cannot use handheld devices while at a stop sign or red light. You can use a phone that is mounted to your dashboard for navigation purposes only. The new law permits “minimal use of a finger” to activate an app or device. Built-in electronic systems like hands-free calling and calls to 911 or other emergency services are still legal. Drivers are only allowed to use their handheld devices if they have pulled off the road and are stationary. You can be pulled over for breaking this law and issued a ticket that will go on your record and be reported to your insurance.

The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office said it will be “actively looking for people both talking and texting on their cellphones.”

Talking with a cell phone to your ear or texting is illegal but many ignore that rule by hiding the device so passing police officers cannot see it.

I know the perils of distracted driving first-hand.

At the age of 20, I was texting when I crashed my car into tree. It was dark and the roads were winding. The wreck happened in seconds, and it totaled my car and left me bruised and scratched. For years after that, I kept my cell phone in my purse, far away from my hands.

But time goes by, and I’ve had a great driving record. So now, when the phone rings or I need to tell a friend I’m running a few minutes late, I reach for my phone. It doesn’t happen every day, but it happens enough. I tell myself: I’m older; I’m a better driver; it’s broad daylight.

All of that is irrelevant.

Each day in the United States, approximately nine people are killed and more than 1,000 are injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This past February, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission released the results for a statewide survey of distracted drivers. It found that cell phone use is the most common type of distraction, at 71 percent. Other interruptions were eating, tuning a radio or attending to pets or children. Statewide, nearly 1 out of 10 drivers in Washington state are preoccupied while operating a car. Fatalities from distracted driving increased by 32 percent from 2014 to 2015 in Washington. According to the CDCP, other research has shown that cell phone use increases the risk of crashes by three times. Entering text into a cell phone can increase crash risk by up to 23 times.

Let’s factor in where we live. Driving down one of our roads you will encounter bikers, joggers, families, kids in strollers and dogs on leashes. Just one swerve and you could kill someone.

We tend to think “that kind of thing won’t happen to me.” Well, one day it will. And it’s a tragedy that would have been completely preventable.

So as you and your 4,000-pound vehicle are hurtling down the road, set down the phone and pay attention to the world outside your window.