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Drivers could face new distracted driving penalties in Wash.

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By: KIRO 7 Natasha Chen

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Holding a phone while driving in Washington state becomes illegal in 2019 once Gov. Jay Inslee signs a distracted driving measure passed by the Legislature.

“I am just thrilled that we have been able to forge a step forward on distracted driving,” Inslee said Thursday. “Pain and suffering and tragedy caused by this inattentiveness is very hard to bear.”

A date has not yet been set for the bill to be signed, though it will happen within the next few weeks.

Current law only prohibits texting or holding a phone to the ear while driving, but under the measure passed by both chambers Wednesday, drivers would be prohibited from holding an electronic device – including phones, tablets and other electronic devices – while driving, including while in traffic or waiting for a traffic light to change.

However, the measure would allow “the minimal use of a finger” to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of a personal electronic device while driving.

Gina Bagnariol-Benavides, whose sister was killed when a distracted driver hit her, said she was relieved to see the bill pass.

“I was just really emotional,” she said, calling it long overdue. Bagnariol-Benavides testified to legislators in Olympia earlier this year. She talked about her sister, Jodi Bagnariol, who died alongside her best friend last July.

“She drives me every single day. It’s her voice that I hear that just say, ‘you keep going sister,’” Bagnariol-Benavides said.

She said Jodi and her friend were in stopped traffic on I-5, and the driver behind them had set the cruise control at 76 miles per hour.

She said that driver had asked her husband, in the passenger seat, to take a selfie with her.

Because the driver did not hold the device in her own hand, this new law would not have applied. But Bagnariol-Benavides said she still hopes it would increase awareness for drivers and passengers to stay focused on the road.

“We are all so into our phones that we need an equal application of the law,” said Democratic Rep. Jessyn Farrell of Seattle.

Under the measure passed this week, the standard traffic fine of $136 would apply to a first offense but would increase to about $235 for a second offense. The first distracted driving offense would also be reportable to insurance companies, which could raise rates like any other moving violation.

Some lawmakers disputed the penalty, suggesting it should only apply to second offenses.

“Somebody who is merely holding a cellphone in their hand is not necessarily distracted,” said Republican Rep. Ed Orcutt of Kalama.

Republican Sen. Ann Rivers of La Center, sponsor of the Senate measure, said that “dollars drive behavior.”

“If people know they are going to have to pay more overtime for their insurance because they made a bad decision, perhaps it will help them to reevaluate their behavior to not drive under the influence of electronics and to remain focused on the road,” she said.

Farrell said the measure would go into effect in January 2019 to give the public and the state patrol some time to adjust and prepare for the change.

Another section of the bill also says a person who engages in “any activity not related to the actual operation of a motor vehicle” is subject to pay an additional fine of $100. It only applies, if an officer catches a driver being distracted while committing a standard traffic offense, such as running a stop sign because their coffee spilled or a pet jumped in their lap.

Farrell said the bill doesn’t prohibit drivers from doing other things like eating, putting on makeup or having a pet in the car but it would create an extra fine if those distractions cause the driver to drive dangerously.

Over a six-year period, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission reported 1,336 people died in motor vehicle crashes in Washington State. Of those, nearly 30 percent involved distraction.

Exemptions to the bill would include using an electronic device to contact emergency services, to operate an emergency vehicle, to allow transit system dispatch services to communicate time-sensitive messages and to allow any activities that are federally authorized for commercial motor vehicle drivers. Operating an amateur radio station and two-way or citizens band radio services are also exempt under the bill.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states currently ban any hand-held cellphone use while driving a car and 46 states ban texting while driving. However, 37 states along with the District of Columbia ban all cellphone use by beginner or teen drivers, including Washington.

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AP correspondent Rachel La Corte contributed to this report.

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