State bans text messaging, cell phone use while driving

Beginning Jan. 1, it will be illegal for drivers in the state of Washington to read, type or send a text message from a wireless device while behind the wheel. Motorists also will be banned from using all but "hands-free" cell phones while driving.

Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the law on Friday. The law won't apply to emergency personnel, tow truck drivers who use wireless devices that are permanently attached to their vehicles, or drivers using wireless devices to report illegal activity, call for medical assistance or other emergencies. Users of "hands-free" devices are also exempt.

Drivers can be cited for breaking the new law only if they have been stopped for another traffic violation. The fine for violating the new law could be as high as US$250.

According to a survey released earlier this year by Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., 37 percent of so-called Generation Y drivers -- those 23 years old or younger -- admitted to texting or engaging in instant messaging while driving, compared with 17 percent of Gen X drivers (those 24 to 46) and 2 percent of baby boomers (age 47 to 67).

Washington's legislators proposed the law after an accident involving a man using his BlackBerry mobile device while driving.

The accident, which occurred in December, was caused by a 53-year-old man using his BlackBerry while driving a minivan in the express lane of Interstate 5 near downtown Seattle. According to the Seattle Times, the man, who was unaware that the traffic ahead of him had stopped, smashed into the car in front of him, causing a chain reaction involving three other cars and a bus carrying 28 passengers. No one was seriously injured in the accident.

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