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WTSC survey found distracted driving rates have increased in the state

Distracted drivers increased by 2.4 percentage points between 2021 and 2022.

WASHINGTON — Editor's note: The above video on driving distraction-free with the WSP originally aired May 6, 2019.

A new Washington Traffic Safety Commission survey found that distracted driving has increased statewide since 2021. Over 100 law enforcement agencies are responding by increasing patrols that focus on distracted drivers.

Distracted driving is defined by the commission as driving while diverting attention from the task of driving.

The commission started conducting annual surveys in 2019, collecting data during June each year at 375 locations across Washington. The results from the 2022 survey found that over 90% of Washington drivers do not drive distracted, but that number decreased in the last year. 

Statewide distracted driving was at 9.3%, up over two percentage points from 2021 when the rate was 6.9%. In 2020, distracted driving was up from the year before, an increase related, the survey says, to the COVID-19 pandemic. That rate returned to the 2019 level in 2021 but has since increased. 

Distracted driving occurs more often on city streets, and less on highways. All road types saw an increase in distracted driving in 2022, but city streets went up by 6.9% compared to highways which rose by 1.8%.

The counties with the highest rates of distracted driving were Clark, Walla Walla, and Stevens, where more than 15% of drivers drive distracted. King County's rate in 2022 was below the statewide average at 7.8%. Snohomish County's was 11.2%, and Pierce County's was 10.4%, placing them above the average.

In Washington, it is illegal to use a hand-held cell phone while driving, even if the car is stopped, but phones remain the leading cause of distracted driving. Drivers are prohibited from typing messages, watching videos, or using the phone’s camera. Distracted driving is a primary traffic offense and may be a secondary traffic offense if the driver is found to be “dangerously distracted.” 

A first-time offense of driving distracted will result in a $136 fine. Repeated offenses will result in a $234 fine. If the driver is “dangerously distracted" an additional $99 citation can be given on top of another traffic violation (that driving violation must have been caused by distracted driving). 

Drivers are permitted to use phones if it is hands-free, such as Bluetooth connection, if they are fully parked, or if they are contacting emergency services.

To help avoid distracted driving, Together We Get There recommends setting phones to silent, either on do not disturb or in airplane mode. Then, it should be placed out of reach of the driver. Planning ahead to make time for eating and navigation set up before you drive will also help reduce distracted driving. Passengers can help by offering to assist with GPS or responding to messages.

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