A study on distracted driving enforcement in Washington

The University of Washington Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center conducted a study on distracted driving enforcement.

Using focus groups of police officers from King County, Whatcom County, and Spokane County, researchers identified some common problems, including: distracted driving laws are difficult to enforce.

The study participants proposed a solution.

Laws should prohibit all forms of electronic distraction while driving.

“Officers told us they don’t want to know what someone typing on their phone – just that they shouldn’t be doing it.” said researcher Dr. Beth Ebel.


This problem is clearly illustrated in this video, as a driver explains to an officer what he was doing with his phone.

Washington state law RCW 46.61.668 prohibits sending, reading, or writing a text message while driving.
Washington state law RCW 46.61.667 prohibits hand-held wireless communication device use while driving.

Police officers also pointed out the necessity of changing the social norms and expectations around distracted driving.

The model for this change: the progress on drunk driving over the last several decades.

“…Officers said that laws against drunk driving are now strictly enforced; a similar change is needed limit distracted driving.”

What can we take away from this distracted driving study?

Distracted driving laws need to keep up with rapidly-changing technology. In order for these laws to be effective, they need to be enforceable.

Additionally, distracted driving prevention is going to require a change in how we think about driving. People who would never drive drunk will nonetheless assume the same crash risks by driving distracted. Driving is a primary task, and we need to treat it as such.

Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, based in Seattle, Washington, is a global leader in injury cause and injury prevention research. See the abstract of this research:

“I wasn’t texting; I was just reading an email …”: a qualitative study of distracted driving enforcement in Washington State



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