National Security

Washington State’s “Driving Under the Influence of Electronics” Law Goes Full-Bore: Eating, Smoking While Driving is Outlawed

In Washington, pretty much anything not contributing to driving is outlawed.

Like all other states, Washington takes its highway safety quite seriously. Distracted driving is a huge problem anywhere motorists are, and Washington’s government decided to bump its proactive measures up a few notches by outlawing not only all cell phone use while driving but also grooming, smoking, eating, or reading behind the wheel. Called the DUI-E Law—Driving Under the Influence of Electronics—the range of outlawed practices while motoring a vehicle expands upon the cell phone ban already existing on the books in Washington. Pretty much anything not contributing to driving is outlawed.

House Bill 1371, otherwise known as the DUI-E Law, was sponsored by 13 Democrats and two Republicans seeking to remedy distracted driving in support of the Washington State Patrol’s “Target Zero” initiative to quash traffic fatalities statewide.

Per the DUI-E statute, “dangerously distracted means a person who engages in any activity not related to the actual operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of such motor vehicle on any highway.” Therefore, combing hair, applying makeup, burning a Marlboro, or noshing on a morning bagel while operating a car in Washington are all no-nos.

So the motorist who is salivating over a scrumptious cheeseburger while tooling around in Tacoma may be the bane of existence for a driver whose rear-view mirror depicts a distracted driver bellying a whopper. To some, that may seem a bit too much. To motorists who are in front of or near a distracted driver, this law could be life-saving. Then again, it is legislated as a ”secondary offense,” which means a law enforcement officer must first observe a primary infraction (blowing through a red light) in order to address any of the aforementioned or similar “distractions” outlawed by this statute.

Running a stop sign while applying eyeliner equals a traffic stop with one or more tickets issued.

So determined are Washington’s intentions behind this particular law that Governor Jay Inslee was compelled to enact it sooner rather than later. It was initially set to roll out in January 2019 but was amended to July 23, 2017. Governor Inslee declared, “When you are driving with a cell phone, you are a more dangerous driver than if you’re driving drunk with a .08 alcohol level.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has compiled a list of “Cell Phone Use and Texting While Driving Laws” for all states (updated 06-23-2017).


Having been a policeman, many traffic crashes (some fatal) are unequivocally preventable. Distractions while operating an automobile do play a major role in wrecks as well as an impetus for road rage. Drive anywhere at just about any time on the 24-hour dial and you will invariably witness a driver occupied by their cell phone and relatively inattentive as it relates to driving concentrations and responsibilities, endangering everyone sharing the asphalt.

These laws are needed, but I ponder the impacts (fallout) of such statutes relating to how they affect habits, insurance industry fluffing premiums, and commerce. For example, will the DUI-E Law torpedo Washington’s fast-food drive-thru establishments? After all, they are reeling in plenty of business by offering the motorist a quick-stop food delivery designed for eating-on-the-run convenience. Imagine the lobbyists’ voices over that legislative pickle.

And what about Washington’s demographics in terms of potentially new residents seeking to relocate? Some may view it as a tolerable issue when seeking new digs and a new career in a novel environment. Others, like traveling salespeople, may find it overbearing and stunting their income potential. What about tourism? Visitors will recall the restrictions and perhaps opt for other more permissible vacationlands. Laws curtailing certain “features” for motorists could be dissuasive, a turn-off to Washington, and a boon to states without such laws. Conversely, some prospective new residents may be seeking exactly something like the DUI-E Law, so Washington becomes the hero, not the zero.

Without playing devil’s advocate, as a public safety professional, I support stricter motor vehicle laws. With graphic police experience to bolster my concerns, driving is off the chain and seemingly deteriorating before our eyes. Reeling in the Road Runner was abysmal for Wiley Coyote, but it doesn’t have to be for traffic cops responsible for ensuring safety for the motoring public…and the blatant rockets on our roadways.

With the rampancy of motorists texting while driving nowadays, it can be monetarily steep as well as life-threatening. As is customary when new traffic laws are enacted, law enforcers are directed to issue warnings and educate motorists—sort of a warming, courteous period. Whether feigning ignorance or truly oblivious to the law, a police database recording traffic stops will likely reflect on what date/time a driver was made privy to the DUI-E law. Thereafter, warning is unlikely.

Economically speaking, all vehicle owners (or at least those who pay the insurance premiums) bear the costly burden of traffic law violations. Insurance companies are not slow to bump up premiums when driver records indicate some (ahem) blemishes, snafus, poor judgments, and bad habits. The DIU-E law contains the following stipulation: “Tickets for driving while using hand-held electronics will go on your [driving] record and reported to your insurance provider.” So, convicted motorists will pay in more ways than one—as hinted at above.

Washington’s DUI-E Law has the following fines regarding illegal electronics use while driving: first offense is $136. A repeat infraction within five years of the first will hit the pockets to the tune of $234. And the fine is $99 “for other types of distractions such as grooming, smoking, eating, or reading if the activity interferes with safe driving.” Notice their use of the word “if”?

If stopped by police, that would be a $99 pepperoni pizza.

Touching upon commerce: What about couriers who make a living delivering parcels? They do so with cell phone use as a dominant feature to conduct their business. Uber drivers? The business model behind Uber’s car-share service is engineered around the cell phone, both for drivers and potential passengers. Has this law gone into the realm of government overreach? The law recommends (allows) Bluetooth technology as an exception. That means drivers can help themselves by investing in safer electronic communications devices not deemed unsafe/illegal.

So as not to be deemed insensitive, the core concern superseding any of these beefs is saving lives by implementing ultra-attentive drivers sharing the roadways, and I stand on that side of the fence.

Bottom Line

Having nothing to do with traffic ticket revenue, the ultimate bottom line pertaining to states’ motor vehicle operation laws is based on saving lives. Washington state wishes to erase traffic fatalities, echoing why stricter laws are being enacted and why law enforcement officers patrolling the highways and byways are more diligent in stopping cars and having contacts with drivers.

Washington’s Target Zero initiative cites the following reasons/statistics: “Fatalities from distracted driving increased 32 percent from 2014 to 2015 in Washington; 71 percent of distracted drivers engage in the most dangerous distraction, cell phone use behind the wheel; one out of four crashes involves cell phone use just prior to the crash.” Bear in mind that these stats are substantiated from testimonials from those who survived. Many traffic-related pieces of evidence and factors contributing to causation are neither readily admitted by folks nor qualified by speculation. Thus the numbers are likely higher.

On that note, it is proper and reassuring for Governor Jay Inslee to advance the law and enact it sooner rather than later. When lives are on the line, delay potentiates the numbers and tallies that many more funerals. Ultimately, a proactive government engineering policies on behalf of its citizens is a validation for those who elected them to office. The win-win is palpable and, despite some other venues and entities feeling an economic pinch, ensuring public safety will always have a robust voice over convenience.

Per Deputy Craig Chamberlain with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, “The bottom line with the new changes in this law is that we want folks to be safe on the roadway.”

Governor Inslee proclaimed, “There’s hardly anything we’ve done in the last several years at the state Capitol to save more lives than this distracted driving law.” Hopefully the DUI-E statute will balance out and ensure public safety without generating problems elsewhere. If only folks took drivers’ responsibility more seriously.

Stephen Owsinski

Stephen Owsinski is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a researcher and writer. Follow Stephen on Twitter @uniformblue.

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