New cell phone law has a learning curve, Kent Police find

One man told Kent Police he had to answer his cell phone while driving because his plumber called. A woman told an officer she simply forgot about the new state law, which allows police to ticket drivers if they are holding a cell phone to their ear or texting while driving.

Kent Police Officer David Beerbower works in his police cruiser. Kent Police say they aren't doing emphasis patrols on the new cell-phone law at this time

Kent Police Officer David Beerbower works in his police cruiser. Kent Police say they aren't doing emphasis patrols on the new cell-phone law at this time

One man told Kent Police he had to answer his cell phone while driving because his plumber called.

A woman told an officer she simply forgot about the new state law, which allows police to ticket drivers if they are holding a cell phone to their ear or texting while driving.

Thanks to the new law, which makes these actions a primary offense, drivers must now use hands-free devices to talk on their cell phones.

The law became effective June 10, but Kent Police have opted not to put special emphasis on enforcing it.

“We have not directed officers to cite everyone they see,” Deputy Chief Mike Painter said. “We’re approaching it as up to the officer’s discretion. We don’t tell them whether to cite or not. They did receive briefings about the new law, but otherwise it’s business as usual. If it leads to another violation, they can react to that.”

Under the old law, officers had to observe drivers committing another type of traffic violation before citing them for using a hand-held cell phone.

Now an officer can pull over a driver for holding a cell phone or texting and give them a $124 ticket. Although there is a financial penalty, the ticket does not go on a driver’s record.

Kent Police found violators of the cell-phone law over the past week, but mainly pulled drivers over because they also watched them commit other traffic infractions.

Sgt. Robert Constant, traffic-unit supervisor, said he cited three drivers June 10 for using a hand-held cell phone. All three drivers also committed other traffic violations. Two ran red lights and a third driver was following another vehicle too closely.

“One of them said Scott his plumber called and it was a call he had to take,” Constant said. “One lady said she completely forgot (about the law).”

Kent Police didn’t see any real changes in the number of citations issued for using a hand-held cell phone during the first five days of the new law, compared to the old law when it was a secondary offense.

“They are enforcing the law but it (the number of citations) is not overwhelming by any means,” said Constant, who did not have specific numbers.

Even with the new law in place, plenty of drivers are still opting use their hand-held phones while their car is in operation.

“It’s so prevalent now,” Constant said. “It will be a long time before we get compliance. We never get 100 percent compliance on any law, but it will be a while.”

Constant said many drivers have developed their cell-phone habits over the last five to 10 years, so he figures it will take time for people to adjust to the new law.

“I think it will take six months to a year to get people to change their behavior,” he said.

The state Legislature passed the law as an attempt to reduce accidents, bolstered by several national studies that showed holding a cell phone or texting while driving causes accidents due to driver distraction.

Case in point: People who use hand-held phones while driving are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves or others, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (www.iihs.org), a nonprofit research group funded by auto insurers.

The new law also prohibits the use of electronic devices by drivers under age 18 and anyone with an intermediate driver’s license or a learner’s permit, with or without a hands-free device.

Exceptions to the hand-held phone law include drivers who put a cell phone to their ear to call 911 and drivers with hearing aids who need to hold a phone to their ear in order to hear.

The folks cited by Kent Police didn’t meet those requirements.

“Everyone had an excuse about why they were using a phone but nobody was calling 911 or anything,” Constant said.


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