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Study: WA's Texting Ban Working to Reduce Traffic Deaths

PHOTO: Officer Briggs Schulz, left, of the Federal Way Police Department shares his views with a group of high school students in a "Teens Against Distracted Driving" presentation. Attorney Jason Epstein (R) asks teens to pledge to not text and drive, and not to ride with friends who do. Photo credit: Sam Fletcher, Premier Law Group
PHOTO: Officer Briggs Schulz, left, of the Federal Way Police Department shares his views with a group of high school students in a "Teens Against Distracted Driving" presentation. Attorney Jason Epstein (R) asks teens to pledge to not text and drive, and not to ride with friends who do. Photo credit: Sam Fletcher, Premier Law Group
July 30, 2014

BELLEVUE, Wash. - Laws that ban texting while driving - and that allow law enforcement to cite someone for texting without another reason to pull the vehicle over - are the most effective at preventing distracted driving deaths, according to a new study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Washington has such a law, known as a "primary-offense" texting ban, and the research found it reduces traffic deaths by 3 percent.

A Bellevue personal injury attorney, Jason Epstein, said he thinks Washington's law could go further and believes the Legislature should set the same tough penalties for distracted driving as for drunk driving.

"If the Alabama study is correct, that primary-offense laws are more effective than other laws, then it stands to reason that a primary-offense law with teeth would be even more effective," he said. "But we have to get public opinion behind us to realize that the behavior is just as dangerous."

In a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, the most recent on the topic, 31 percent of drivers said they had either read or sent text or email messages while driving in the previous month.

As founder of the group Teens Against Distracted Driving, Epstein combs the Northwest making presentations, mostly at schools. His co-presenters include local police or state troopers, and also the family members of a young woman who lost her life texting behind the wheel when she drifted into oncoming traffic.

"They come in and talk about how their life has been affected by the loss of their loved one through a texting accident, and that's always powerful," he said. "When we're done doing that portion of it, there's not a dry eye in the house - including me, and I've heard the story countless times at this point."

He estimated that he's gotten 10,000 pledges signed by young drivers in Washington to not text or check messages when they're at the wheel - and he's shared information with attorneys in other states, who now make similar presentations and collect pledges.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted-driving deaths were down in 2012, but injuries were up 9 percent.

The UAB study is in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA