University of Washington School of Public Health

UW SPH News: Distracted Driving Law in WA Needs an Update, SPH Study Finds

Distracted Driving Law in WA Needs an Update, SPH Study Finds

10/05/2016
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Laws intended to curb distracted driving have not kept pace with technology and can be difficult to enforce, according to a new study from the University of Washington School of Public Health and Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center.

Researchers interviewed 26 active-duty law enforcement officers from Spokane, King and Whatcom counties in Washington state to identify factors that influence how distracted driving is enforced.

Among the findings, published online Sept. 15 in Injury Prevention, researchers learned:

  • Driver response and resistance to being pulled over affects how officers approach enforcement.
  • Traffic enforcement is a low priority for patrol officers, who are busy with other police activities.
  • A lack of clarity in the current law creates a challenging dynamic for officers when approaching drivers suspected of distracted driving.

“These results underscore the importance of cultural norms on the way our laws are perceived and enforced,” said Beth Ebel, an adjunct professor of epidemiology and health services at the School and professor of pediatrics at the UW. “Most young drivers today wouldn’t dream of driving intoxicated. That’s a change from even five or 10 years ago. We need to see that same change around distracted driving.”

In 2014, nearly 500,000 people in the United States were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. Forty-six states have distracted driving laws, but they focus narrowly on text messaging and calls, allowing various other phone applications to remain within the letter of the law.

Officers who participated in the study agreed that distracted driving laws need to be updated to cover all handheld devices, apply to all driving environments and make driving violations reportable offences. Ironically, more than half of the officers reported that they themselves were distracted drivers. Officers acknowledged actions such as typing on the patrol car computer or sending text messages while driving.

Ebel and collaborators recommend that officers receive formal training on the direct link between distracted driving and injury. The research team worked with Public Health – Seattle & King County and the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to create a video that addresses how to best enforce current laws.

Study collaborators include Paul Nevin, who conducted research as an MPH student in the School’s Department of Global Health, and Laura Blanar, a PhD student in the School’s Department of Health Services and a data analyst at Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center.

The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.