Eyes on the road, not on the phone

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When you’re surrounded by two or three tons of steel, hurtling down a road at 70 miles an hour, it would make sense to give your full attention to what you’re doing so you don’t slam into anything. Wouldn’t it?

You’d think so. But in this age of texting, social media and GPS, there always seems to be something more interesting going on than driving. It’s been illegal now for more than a decade to text or hold a cell phone to your ear while behind the wheel in Washington. Even so, deaths from distracted driving increase every year; between 2014 and 2015, fatalities went up by 32 percent, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. A WTSC study showed that 71 percent of drivers took their eyes and their minds off the road to check their phones. That’s more than two-thirds of people sharing the road. It only takes one person looking away at the wrong time to create a tragedy.

It’s not just cell phones that are distracting, of course. Motorists sometimes fiddle with the radio, or unwrap fast food, or light a cigarette while they’re driving, and those things can be dangerous as well. But social media and cell technology have taken distraction to a previously unheard-of level. The WTSC study shows that drivers are up to four times more likely to get in a collision even when they’re using a hands-free device, and 23 times more likely when they’re entering information like an address for GPS or a text message.

Law enforcement agencies in Washington have responded by dubbing April (rather ironically) Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and cracking down hard on drivers who just can’t resist taking that one call. Between now and Easter, sheriff’s offices and local police departments all over the Basin will be participating in the WTSC’s Target Zero, which – as the name would suggest – aims to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries altogether by 2020. That’s an ambitious goal, but they’re pursuing it hard, because any law enforcement officer would rather write a ticket than remove a corpse from a vehicle.

And write tickets they do. In 2014, the first year of Target Zero, cell phone-related citations, carrying a minimum fine of $136, increased by 197 percent. Currently those violations aren’t reported to courts or insurance companies, but bills have been introduced in the state legislature to change that.

We get that it’s hard to resist the reflex to answer a phone when it rings, especially in these times of constant communication. But no call is so urgent that you or someone else should have to die for it. In fact, we’d bet that most of the calls people take aren’t even worth $136. So put the phone in the glove box, or hand it to a passenger, or even turn it off until you get to where you’re going. Every missed call puts us closer to achieving Target Zero.

— Editorial board

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