Washington’s Distracted Driver Law: The One Finger Rule
In May 2017, Washington amended the Rules of the Road to update its “Dangerously Distracted” driver law. The crux of the new law is that drivers can only use one finger to operate a personal electronic device, namely cell phones.
Drivers who are "Dangerously Distracted" are Guilty of a Traffic Infraction.Washington's Rules of the Road prohibit a driver from using a personal electronic device, including cell phones, while driving a motor vehicle on a public highway; however, a driver is not prohibited from "the minimal use of a finger to activate, deactivate, or imitate a function of the device."
The practical implication is that to legally operate such a device, drivers likely must have their cell phones mounted in such a way that only ONE finger is necessary to operate the phone and its applications.
Drivers must be aware that the law is not limited to distracted driving because of the use of a personal electronic device. Rather, the law is much broader.
"Dangerously Distracted" is defined as a "person who engages in any activity not related to the actual operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of such motor vehicle on any highway."
In other words, a driver who is unable to safely drive because the driver is using a cell phone, eating a sandwich, watching video on a tablet, reading a newspaper, or any other activity not related to driving is guilty of violating the distracted driving law.
What is a "Personal Electronic Device"?Drivers should note that the new law is not limited to cell phones. Instead, the new law applies to all "personal electronic devices" which is defined as follows:
"[A]ny portable electronic device that is capable of wireless communication or electronic data retrieval and is not manufactured primarily for hands-free use in a motor vehicle. "Personal electronic device" includes, but is not limited to, a cell phone, tablet, laptop, two-way messaging device, or electronic game. "Personal electronic device" does not include two-way radio, citizens band radio, or amateur radio equipment."
What does it mean to "Use" a "Personal Electronic Device"?Under the new Rules of the Road, a driver "uses" a personal electronic device, including a cell phone, when the driver:
1. Holds a personal electronic device in one or both hands
2. Uses a hand or finger to "compose, send, read, view, access, browse, transmit, save, or retrieve email, text messages, instant messages, photographs, or other electronic data".
3. Watches video on a personal electronic device.
Can Local Governments loosen the One-Finger Rule?The short answer is no. The Washington Legislature specifically addressed the issue of local cities and counties passing laws or ordinances that weaken the statewide prohibition against distracted driving.
Specifically, "The state preempts the field of regulating the use of personal electronic devices in motor vehicles while driving, and this section supersedes any local laws, ordinances, orders, rules, or regulations enacted by any political subdivision or municipality to regulate the use of a personal electronic device by the operator of a motor vehicle."
In this case, preemption is the legal effect of the state law overruling any local laws or ordinances. Said another way, the state law rules the roost.