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OLYMPIA, Wash. — Texting while driving is illegal under Washington state’s distracted driving law. But by the letter of the law, checking your Facebook feed or using Snapchat or other apps on your smartphone from behind the wheel is technically legal.

A new bill seeks to fix the situation. If it passes, using a smartphone in almost any form while driving would become illegal in the state.

Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle.

Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, has introduced the bill to ban the use of handheld devices while driving. Sen. Ann Rivers, R-LaCenter, plans to introduce the same bill soon in the Senate. Farrell and Rivers are influential members of the majority caucuses — meaning their legislation has a good chance of passing. Rivers got a similar bill through the Senate in 2015, but it died in the House.

“It makes no sense that texting while driving is against the law, but checking Facebook or another app isn’t, even though those things are also dangerously distracting for drivers,” Farrell said in a news release. “It’s time to update our law to make our roads safer.”

Rivers said, “The other day I saw someone on the highway holding a tablet computer in the middle of the steering wheel, and it was clear the person was paying more attention to what was on the screen. That’s not driving — it’s a tragedy waiting to happen, and there’s no telling how many innocent lives it could change.”

She added, “People like that need new motivation to keep at least one hand on the wheel and their eyes looking ahead. This legislation basically says that if operating a phone or device takes more than one finger, then it had better wait until you’re safely off the road.”

Under the legislation, proposed illegal uses include:

  • Holding a personal electronic device in either hand or both hands;
  • Using a hand or finger to compose, send, read, browse, transmit, save, or retrieve email, text messages, instant messages, photographs, or other electronic data. But the legislation does not forbid the minimal use of a finger to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the device.
  • Watching video on a personal electronic device.

The law makes exceptions for certain commercial and emergency uses.

Washington state had 130 distracted driving deaths in 2014 and 171 in 2015, according to data cited by Rivers and Farrell. So far, 109 distracted driving deaths have been reported through September 2016.

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