Distracted driving fatalities increase by 32% in WA, prompting l - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Distracted driving fatalities increase by 32% in WA, prompting legislative action

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SEATTLE, WA – As new studies and data point to startling increases in auto accidents and a corresponding impact on insurance costs, Washington legislators are considering bills to strengthen penalties against the use of hand-held devices and to penalize other distracted behaviors committed by drivers on the state’s roadways.

Fatal auto accidents across the nation increased by 7.2 percent in 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and much of that increase is being blamed on the use of smartphones while driving. Even worse, distracted driving-related auto fatalities increased 32 percent in Washington the same year. Now, a new observational study conducted by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission  (WTSC) reported that 71 percent of the time, when distracted driving was observed in the study, it involved the use of a mobile device (cell phone).

Lawmakers proposing distracted driving bills believe that expanding the definition of illegal cellphone use while driving and increasing fines for violators will help save lives. Insurers supporting the legislation say that stopping the dramatic rise in smartphone and distraction-related accidents is key to managing rising claims costs.

“Our goal is to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries on Washington’s roadways to zero by the year 2030; we call this Target Zero,” said Angie Ward, program manager at WTSC. “With fatalities from distracted driving increasing, and with drivers engaging in the riskiest type of distracting behavior – cell phone use – reducing distracted driving must become a higher priority.”

HB 1371 and SB 5289 are measures that seek to ban nearly all use of hand-held mobile devices while driving and would extend to viewing, scrolling or surfing, for example, in addition to texting. It would be a “primary offense,” which means a violator does not also need to break another traffic law – like speeding – to be pulled over and cited. The fine for illegal phone use while driving would remain at $136 for a first offense, but jump to $248 for a second offense - and insurers would be able to see cellphone/driving violations on driving records.

A separate measure, HB 1631, proposes additional penalties for drivers who are “dangerously distracted” while driving. The bill targets activities such as eating, reaching for a dropped item, or tending to pets or backseat passengers while driving that interfere with the safe operation of a vehicle. Provisions penalizing non-cellphone distractions as a secondary offense were added to SB 5289 by legislators in the Senate Transportation Committee last week.

A study released last week by the WTSC concludes that while all distractions are a reason for concern, cell phone use while driving is the riskiest distraction for drivers. Talking on a cell phone increases crash risk by three times. Entering text into a smartphone increases crash risk by 23 times.

Drivers talking on the phone, even hands-free, can miss up to 50 percent of what is going on in their driving environment, according to WTSC. From 2014 to 2015, distracted driving fatalities increased by 32 percent in Washington, and there were nearly 10,000 more non-fatal collisions reported in 2015 than the previous year.

The increase in auto crashes is impacting insurance costs, as well. Nationally, the average expenditure for auto insurance has climbed to $926, and the Washington Insurance Commissioner’s office reported that on average, auto insurance rates among the state’s top 20 insurers increased 5.9 percent over the past year.

Insurers say loss costs – payments made to treat injuries, repair damaged vehicles and property and defend insured drivers in legal actions – have jumped 16 percent over the past two years. While individual companies weigh rating factors differently, loss costs are typically reflected in premiums paid by consumers.

“The cost – in lives and dollars – is staggering,” said Kenton Brine, president of NW Insurance Council. “That’s why we are joining with organizations like WTSC to encourage safe driving in Washington, and why we support legislators’ efforts to enact smart laws that prevent careless use of smartphones.”

Texting while driving is banned in 46 states and talking on a hand-held device while operating a motor vehicle is banned in 14 states, including Washington. Even with those laws in place, distracted driving – spurred by increased interaction with smartphones –  has become one of the most dangerous hazards on roadways today.

“The best defense against auto crashes and higher insurance costs is simple,” Brine said. “When you’re driving, keep your hands on the wheel, your eyes on the road, and your mind on your driving.”

For more information about distracted driving or auto insurance, contact NW Insurance Council at 800-664-4942 or visit www.nwinsurance.org.

What to know

  • Traffic safety experts say drivers are three times more likely to be in a crash when talking on a cell phone, and 23 times more likely to crash when entering information into a cell phone.
  • Distracted driving fatalities in Washington increased 32 percent from 2014 to 2015. And in a recent WA study, 71 percent of drivers who were observed as being distracted were using a cell phone behind the wheel.
  • Insurers are experiencing higher claims costs due to more vehicle accidents.