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Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Using a smartphone or other device in almost any form while driving is on its way to becoming illegal in Washington state. Only a couple minor steps remain.

The Washington House passed a tweaked Senate bill on that subject Wednesday by a 63-35 vote. Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center — sponsor of the Senate bill — said the House tweaks are minor and should be easily reconciled soon. Then only Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature needed to make it into a law.

“This bill is really about safety and really about kids,” said Rep Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, who shepherded Rivers’ bill through the House.

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.”

Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, opposed the bill. “Somebody can be driving absolutely fine. But the fact they are using a cell phone can cause them to be pulled over and ticketed. … It goes a little bit too far. It goes after people who aren’t necessarily distracted,” he said.

Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle

Under current Washington law, holding a cell phone to one’s ear or texting while driving are prohibited. But the current law does not cover apps like Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat — or the millions of other ways people use their devices.

Rivers’ bill prohibits holding a personal electronic device, watching video on such a device or using a hand or finger to use the device’s features – other than to activate or deactivate a function. Pushing a button with one finger to initiate hands-free calling would be allowed. Reporting emergencies and summoning law enforcement would be allowed.

Washington had 130 distracted driving deaths in 2014 and 171 in 2015.

A legislative staff memo summarized previous testimony on the bill. That testimony included a story of someone watching a movie on Interstate Highway 5 with an iPad strapped to a steering wheel. Entering data on a smartphone involves three types of distracted brain activity to accomplished, according to testimony. “An average text takes your eyes off the road for 5 to 7 seconds. That means your car can travel on the freeway the length of a football field and half without you having any idea what is going on,” the memo said.

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