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Originally published Friday, January 8, 2010 at 4:04 PM

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Texting or talking on cellphone while driving should be a primary offense

New data shows texting and talking on handheld cellphone is more than distracting, it's dangerous. For that reason, state lawmakers should support state Sen. Tracey Eide's new bill to make both offenses primary rather than secondary offenses.

EVEN motorists in denial know deep down that texting and talking on a handheld cellphone while driving is not only distracting, it's dangerous.

For that reason, Washington lawmakers should abandon earlier reticence and support state Sen. Tracey Eide's new bill to make this kind of distracted driving a primary offense.

A primary offense means law-enforcement officers can intervene when a driver is texting or talking while holding a phone on sight. No other reason is needed to to make the stop.

Current state law, a timid compromise, says such activities can be addressed only as a secondary matter, that is, if a driver is doing something else wrong — say, driving with a broken taillight or weaving across lane markers.

The data is clear, if not overwhelming: Distracted driving is the new drunken driving or driving without a seat belt.

In testimony before Congress last fall, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., cited Department of Transportation data showing distracted drivers in 2008 killed 5,800 people and injured 515,000, about 22 percent of all people injured in traffic accidents.

Rockefeller introduced federal legislation that would award grants to states that ban texting and using a handheld cell and make both actions primary offenses.

Eide, a Federal Way Democrat, tried for years to make distracted driving a primary offense. The bill that passed in 2007, with secondary-offense language, was the only way to win sufficient support. Her new bill also bans use of all wireless communications devices while driving for anyone with an intermediate license or learner's permit. That makes sense.

Some studies show texting and driving is more hazardous than driving while drunk. Talking on a handheld phone is also very dangerous.

Eide's legislation does not ban all the hamburger-eating, makeup-applying and other activities drivers should avoid behind the wheel, but it does tackle serious safety problems head-on.

The senator has already met with industry members and does not expect any opposition to the legislation, in part because the evidence is so overwhelming.

Lawmakers should pass a bill that allows drivers to be stopped for texting and talking on a handheld phone — as soon as a law-enforcement officer witnesses it.

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