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Officer Kevin O’Neill issues a warning to a driver using her cell phone. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg).

On his Wednesday morning commute, a Seattle man did something we’re probably all guilty of from time-to-time. He checked his email while waiting at a long stoplight. Unfortunately for him, Seattle Police Officer Kevin O’Neill and I were on a mission to find violators of Washington state’s new distracted driving law — and picking up your phone to check email at a light is now illegal.

If you’re often tempted to check your phone while sitting in heavy Seattle traffic, you may want to pay attention. That behavior could cost you $136 under the new law — a fate I watched three people narrowly escape during an hour riding along with O’Neill.

My ride-along this week underscored just how technology-dependent we’ve become. Sure, our devices have an obvious purpose behind the wheel — providing navigation to get us where we need to go. But more to the point, many of us have become accustomed to filling all dead time — and there’s a lot of that when driving around Seattle — on our phones. The law changes that reality for drivers and means many of us are going to have to break hard-formed habits. The number of drivers we saw using their phones also illustrates how traffic cops are going to have a much heavier workload enforcing the new law.

How the law works

We embarked on our journey on a cloudless day in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood with a clear view of our destination, the downtown skyline. O’Neill was searching for egregious offenders of the new law, which prohibits using a phone or other electronic device for anything while driving or stopped at a light — with a couple of exceptions. Drivers can use one finger for tasks like answering a call, and the law won’t be enforced in an emergency.

Never selfie and drive. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Holding a phone to your ear or texting while driving were already prohibited in Washington state but the new law takes it a step further. It expands the illegal behaviors to almost anything you could do with an electronic device.

Under the new law, the $136 fine is for first time offenders; after that, it jumps up to $234. The law also includes a secondary offense called “dangerously distracted” driving. If a driver is distracted by something other than a cell phone and it leads to a traffic infraction, an officer can issue an add-on ticket. For example, if a driver is pulled over for running a red light and the officer sees her smoking or eating a sandwich it is considered a secondary offense with a $99 fine.

Fortunately for commuters, there’s a grace period before Seattle police officially start issuing fines. Though O’Neill and I pulled over three people for violating the law, he just gave them warnings and educational materials.

Still, the experience provided valuable insights into what officers are looking for as they enforce the new law. Below are some key takeaways.

Keep it docked and unlocked

O’Neill recommends keeping your phone in a dock, like the one he uses, to avoid getting a ticket. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

If your phone is mounted on a dashboard dock, you’re very unlikely to get pulled over for breaking the distracted driving law. Typically, you won’t interact with the device using more than one finger when it’s docked.

O’Neill confirmed as much after we pulled over our first driver, who said he was checking email.

“I can understand that,” O’Neill said. “A lot of people work out of their car but as I told him, when you’re stopped at the light, the law reads, you just can’t have it in your hand…you can use one finger to answer a call. Why can’t you slide? You could check emails, you just cannot be holding it in your hand.”

The word of the law prohibits using “a personal electronic device while driving” and says “driving” means ” to operate a motor vehicle on a public highway, including while temporarily stationary because of traffic, a traffic control device, or other momentary delays.”

If you use your phone “to compose, send, read, view, access, browse, transmit, save, or retrieve email, text messages, instant messages, photographs, or other electronic data” you’re technically breaking the law but it “does not preclude the minimal use of a finger to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the device.”

As O’Neill sees it, if your phone is mounted on a dock, it can be unlocked, displaying maps or other media.

Be aware of your surroundings

In a little over an hour, despite navigating downtown rush hour and chatting, O’Neill and I still spotted three people in clear violation of the new law. He said that number would be far higher if he was in a stationary vehicle.

This driver said she was grateful for the warning. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

“We’re trying to do a bunch of things here, but if I’m stationary it is almost every third car we could be pulling over,” he said.

O’Neill also explained that it’s easier for the police to spot people using their phones when you’re driving toward them, rather than behind them.

The moral of this story is, you could get busted when you least expect it. Checking for cops in your rearview mirror probably won’t protect you from that hefty fine.

Excuses can backfire

According to O’Neill, there are a handful of common excuses that aren’t likely to elicit much sympathy from a traffic cop.

The one he hears most frequently is, “I was just checking maps.” In fact, he heard the familiar refrain from a woman we stopped just before she took the on-ramp to Route 99. Even using your phone for something as innocent as navigation is illegal under the new law. O’Neill suggests getting your route queued up before hitting the road and pulling over if you need to make an adjustment.

He’s also skeptical of drivers with their phones resting in their laps when pulled over. “Did you always carry your cell phone right there?” he joked. “I just wonder, is that something that you always do?”

Seattle traffic police will start issuing tickets for the new distracted driving law in September. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Drivers should also exercise caution when relying on tinted windows to protect them, O’Neill said.

“Obviously you want privacy but if they’re texting, I don’t have much sympathy for them because I figure that’s why they got their windows tinted,” he said.

Washington State Patrol is giving drivers a six-month grace period to adjust to the new law. They will start writing tickets in January. In Seattle, officers are giving out warnings, like O’Neill issued, until September.

The law is already facing some controversy. A petition to ban the law has gathered at least 28,000 signatures from Washington residents who believe distracted driving enforcement has gone too far.

But one driver we pulled over (who asked us not to use her name) said she is glad to see officers crack down on distracted driving and grateful for the reminder about the new law.

“I think the warning is good,” she said. “It reminded me that this is going to go into effect. I take it pretty seriously. It’s important that it reminded me.”

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