The FINANCIAL -- SEATTLE – When Washington and Oregon began enforcing stricter distracted driving laws last year, Northwest drivers snapped to attention. According to the latest PEMCO Insurance Northwest Poll, the states' increased penalties and added emphasis on enforcement drove nearly two-thirds of motorists to become more cautious about distractions when they're behind the wheel.
The Seattle-based insurer asked Northwest drivers how they reacted to new distracted driving rules, known as "E-DUI" laws, which were updated in 2017 to add harsher penalties for drivers caught on their phones or preoccupied with other distractions. The PEMCO poll found that the stricter laws seem to have achieved the desired effect: 63 percent of drivers say they're at least a little more cautious now than they were before, according to Pemco.
For nearly one in four drivers (23 percent), the consequences of the new laws were enough to make them much more cautious about driving while distracted. And, about one-third (38 percent) say they specifically talk or text less often, or not at all, now that the new laws are enforced, while about a quarter say they've cut back on taking or looking at photos or videos while driving (26 and 25 percent, respectively), as well.
Of course, many drivers claim they didn't engage in distracting behaviors, even before the laws were updated. The poll found that about half (49 percent) of drivers say they never talked or texted before the new laws, and about two-thirds of respondents claim they didn't take or look at photos or videos behind the wheel either (66 and 67 percent).
"Most of us acknowledge how dangerous it can be to use your phone while driving, but it's not always easy to break the habit – or even admit that we do it," said PEMCO Spokesperson Derek Wing. "But it appears the new laws may actually be impacting behaviors for the better, as most drivers in our survey say they've become more cautious since the new E-DUI laws passed last year."
As of July 2017, virtually all use of a handheld device is a primary offense in Washington, meaning a police officer can cite a driver just for using a phone or tablet. Getting busted for using a device comes with a fine of at least $136 for first-timers, while drivers with two citations within five years can be charged $234 or more.
According to the Washington State Patrol, following a grace period when troopers gave more lenient warnings to drivers violating the laws, the agency has buckled down and handed out 8,376 citations for distracted driving.
In Oregon, a driver caught holding or using an electronic device can face a fine from $130 to $1,000 for a first-time offense, and anywhere from $220 to $2,000 for a second infraction. Starting July 1, 2018, drivers who are cited for three offenses in a 10-year period will be fined up to $2,500 and can face up to six months in jail, according to Pemco.
And since Oregon's updated law went into effect last October, the Oregon State Police says it has issued a combined total of 3,443 warnings and citations for distracted driving.
While laws in both states specifically forbid holding or touching electronic devices, drivers can make quick commands on their smartphone as long as they're not holding it. Interestingly, though, just one in five drivers (19 percent) say they have a dashboard mount or docking accessory to help access their phone without using both hands.