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Here’s what you can and can’t do under Washington’s distracted driving laws

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No holding electronic devices—or hugging

Wonderlane/Flickr

Washington State’s new-ish EDUI law, which kicked in back in July, is getting a little extra attention thanks to a new statewide patrol. It places extra restrictions on what you can do while behind the wheel—and it’s as good a time as any for a refresher course.

The law, which forbids holding an electronic device while driving, is a more robust version of the previous law, which just forbade texting or holding a phone to your ear. Violations will result in a $136 fine for the first offense, or $234 per additional citation in the next five years.

It was set to take effect in 2019, but that part of the bill was vetoed by Governor Jay Inslee upon signing. After a six-month grace period, officers started handing out citations this past January.

Here’s what drivers can and can’t do while operating a motor vehicle.

Not OK: Holding your electronic device

The bottom line of the new law: You can’t operate a device in a way that requires holding it. This goes for phones, laptops, and tablets.

OK: Touching your electronic device—briefly

Need to hit “ignore” on a phone call so your GPS pops back up? That’s fine. Just don’t pick up and answer the thing. The law allows for “minimal use of a finger.”

Not OK: Calling or texting in any way that requires holding your phone

This was already illegal and it is still illegal.

The Seattle Times pointed out that people often put their phones between their legs to circumvent this law. We asked Washington State Patrol Public Information Officer Rick Johnson about this.

“Black and white letter of the law would allow this,” he told Curbed Seattle over email. “Technically you would not be holding the phone or manipulating it. This is not recommended as I would think it could be more of a distraction.”

He said if you do have to access your phone for whatever reason, it’ll just be harder on you: “Even with the single touch law in place as you would have to look down in order to activate and in turn taking your eyes off of the road.”

OK: Making phone calls using a hands-free device

This was fine before and it’s fine now.

Not OK: Taking photos while driving

If for some reason you were attempting to send Snapchats from the driver’s seat before, just know you can get pulled over for it now. Car selfies are restricted to before you hit the road or during a pit stop. Like with everything else that requires holding a device, it doesn’t matter whether the car’s at a light or not.

You can’t do any of these things at a red light

The rule about not holding and manipulating your phone—it applies when you’re stopped at a red light, too, no matter how long the cycle is.

OK: Holding your phone if you’re pulled over

We asked Johnson what would constitute a time that’s okay to use your phone. Does your engine have to be off?

“Texting in a car is legal if you have safely pulled off the road. The engine can be on, but you just cannot be in control of the vehicle at that time,” he explained. “Basically, you have to be parked.”

He added that the shoulder of the freeway is a very bad place to pull over.

Not OK: Anything else to distract from the road

The law lays out that doing anything else to distract you while operating a motor vehicle could result in an extra fine—but that’s a secondary offense, meaning the driver has to be pulled over for something else first.

It’s tricky, because whether or not you’re distracted by the item would seem up to the officer’s discretion.

Johnson seemed to imply that these cases would be rare—only in the case of a witness report or an admission from the driver.

“At times, we can articulate a distraction as a contributing factor if there are witnesses that observe a driver doing something that could cause a distraction prior to a collision,” he told us. Sometimes, but not often, the driver volunteers that they were distracted: “Only in a few collisions that I have investigated in 26 years has a driver ‘self reported’ being distracted.”

Regardless, potential secondary distractions include:

Eating

The law isn’t designed to prevent eating on the go, bill sponsor (and current Seattle mayoral candidate) Jessyn Farrell told US News and World Report. But if drivers are caught breaking the law while clearly distracted by other activities—say, keeping a burrito contained—it could result in a fine.

One Washington State Patrol PIO tweeted a stock photo of a person with a drink in one hand and a sandwich in the other behind the wheel to illustrate:

We asked Johnson about what happens if, say, a driver has a box of Mexi-Fries on the passenger seat when they’re pulled over for blowing a red light.

“The infraction would be issued for running the red light,” he said. “If you told the officer that the Mexi-Fries are to blame then that would most likely be something he/she would put in their report.”

Another PIO seemed to have a different take while talking to KING 5: “If you do have to think to eat, you should pull over and then continue driving,” said Trooper Jeff Sevigney told the station.

Smoking

The rule doesn’t ban smoking in your car, either, but like with eating, if you get pulled over for something like an unsafe lane change or blowing a stop sign, you could get hit with an additional fine.

Grooming

Again, it’s a secondary offense—nobody is supposed to get pulled over for combing hair alone.

Not OK: Watching videos

No, this wasn’t technically illegal before. Drivers can’t watch videos at all while operating a motor vehicle—even from a dash-mounted phone, even at a red light.

Not OK: Hugging

This isn’t a new law—in fact, it’s one of the oldest distracted driving laws on the books in the state. As the Seattle Times pointed out, “embracing another while driving” has been illegal for 90 years.