Washington Distracted Driving

(We’re talking about more than just not texting.)

Written by Meg Stefanac
Written by Meg Stefanac

Financial blogger and business owner, Meg Stefanac, has more than 15 years experience working in the financial services industry and enjoys helping individuals make solid financial decisions. Meg has extensive experience writing about insurance and finances and is a key contributor to TrustedChoice.com.

Washington distracted driving

Sorry to start on such a negative note, but there were 116,006 car accidents in the state of Washington in 2018 alone. And most of these were simple distracted driving mistakes that are completely preventable.

That’s why arguably THE most important thing you can do behind the wheel is keep your hands at 10 and 2 and your eyes on the road. Always.

What Is Distracted Driving?

The state of Washington defines distracted driving as “the act of driving while engaged in other activities that take the driver’s attention away from the road.”

There are three types of distractions:

  • Visual: anything that causes drivers to take their eyes off the road
  • Manual: anything that causes drivers to take their hand (or hands) off the wheel
  • Cognitive: anything that causes drivers to take their minds off driving

There are a number of things you may do behind the wheel that you never considered to be distractions, though they are. These include quieting rowdy children, adjusting the A/C, reaching for sunglasses, and even singing along to the radio — it's not just sending text messages.


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Distracted Driving Statistics in Washington

You don’t have to follow the local news every night to know that distracted driving is a problem, but here are a few statistics that might help you understand just how serious it is in Washington:

  • Distracted driving accidents are responsible for 23% of serious injuries and 30% of fatalities in this state.
  • One out of four crashes involves the use of a cell phone just prior to the crash.
  • At any given time, one in ten drivers on the roadways of Washington is driving while distracted.
  • Driving while talking on a handheld cell phone increases your risk of a crash as much as driving with a blood alcohol content of 1.9, twice the legal limit.

Traffic Fatalities Caused by Distracted Driving in Washington

Number of Traffic Fatalities Caused by Distracted Driving in Washington

Despite laws designed to curb distracted driving, it continues to cause fatalities in this state. This growing trend can be attributed in part to people’s addiction to their cell phones and inability to put them down while driving.

Does Washington Have Laws against Distracted Driving?


Realizing that distracted driving poses as significant a risk as driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, Washington State passed the Driving Under the Influence of Electronics Act in 2017. This allows and encourages folks to report drivers who are using electronics behind the wheel by calling 911.

Washington is one of very few states that penalizes drivers for engaging in distractions other than cell phone use. Currently, Washington prohibits:

  • Holding cell phones and other wireless communication devices.
  • Reading, writing, or sending text messages while driving.
  • Drivers with learner’s permits and intermediate license holders (teens) from all cell phone use, even if in hands-free mode.
  • Driving while “dangerously distracted.” This means that you can be ticketed for any type of distracting behavior that causes you to drive erratically or dangerously.

Are There Any Exceptions to the Distracted Driving Laws in Washington?


The State of Washington makes exceptions to its distracted driving laws when:

  • The driver is using a personal electronic device to contact emergency services.
  • The device is being used by a transit system employee for time-sensitive relay communications between the employee and the transit system’s dispatch service.
  • The device is being used by a commercial vehicle driver who is using the device within the scope of their employment.
  • The driver is operating an authorized emergency vehicle.

Additionally, the state allows drivers to:

  • Use preprogrammed GPS or navigation systems
  • Minimally use fingers (single touch or swipe) to activate, deactivate, or initiate a hands-free call or other function of the device (like playing music)

Washington Distracted Driving Laws at a Glance

            Yes             No
Is texting while driving legal?
Can you send/receive texts at a red light?                                                 X
Is handheld device use permitted?                                  X
Any special restriction for young drivers?                X                   
Is headphone/headset use permitted?                        X

Is It Legal to Eat a Cheeseburger While Driving in Washington?

Yes. And no. But either way, you should probably just wait until you're home.

Distracted driving comes in many forms, and eating a cheeseburger can be just as distracting as talking on the phone. Basically, anything that takes your attention away from the primary task of driving presents a potential hazard.

So, what happens if a police officer in Washington spots you eating a cheeseburger while driving down the highway? In most cases, nothing. There's no law that specifically states that you cannot eat while driving in this state.

However, there is a law against driving while dangerously distracted. This means if you commit a moving violation or drive in a careless or reckless manner while eating that cheeseburger, you can be pulled over and have a distracted driving charge added to your citation.

Unless you're really in a hurry, you’d probably be better off eating your cheeseburger indoors or in the parking lot.

What's the Difference between Primary and Secondary Enforcement of Distracted Driving Laws?

Primary enforcement of distracted driving laws means the police can pull you over if they see you violating state distracted driving laws.  

Secondary enforcement of distracted driving laws means the police can cite you for violating distracted driving laws only if you break another law while doing so.

Washington uses both primary and secondary enforcement.

The state uses primary enforcement for its texting and handheld device laws. So even if you're in total control of your vehicle while texting or talking on the phone, if a police officer sees you, they can pull you over and write up a citation for violating the state’s distracted driving laws. 

The law against general distracted driving uses secondary enforcement. This means lighting up a cigarette, putting on makeup, or eating that cheeseburger will only get you pulled over if you commit a moving violation while doing so. In this state, that means you’ll have an additional charge and fine attached to your violation.

What's the Fine for Distracted Driving in Washington?

Distracted driving in the State of Washington is a traffic infraction, and the penalties look like this:

  • For a first offense: a fine of at least $136
  • For a second or more offense within five years: a fine of at least $234
  • For other types of distractions (e.g., eating, grooming, etc.): a fine of $99

The fine is not the only price you’ll pay, which brings us to our next topic: car insurance.

Washington compared to the rest of the US on texting and driving restrictions

States that have laws against texting and driving

Every state in the US has a law that prohibits some sort of cell phone usage except Montana and Arizona. But in 2021, newly enacted cell phone restriction laws will go into effect in Arizona.

Does Distracted Driving in Washington Increase Insurance Rates?


In Washington, cell phone violations are reported to insurance companies. This means if you get a citation for distracted driving, your rates will almost certainly go up.

The amount of your rate hike will depend on which insurance company you use and your overall driving history. In Washington, distracted driving citations cause rates to go up an average of $250 a year, so you really have to ask yourself whether that text message or phone call is really worth it.

And, if you have a safe driver discount, you can probably say goodbye to that, and the lower rates it brings. Distracted driving will almost certainly disqualify you from receiving this discount, and this can cause your rate increase to be even more painful.

What If I Drive into Another State?

Distracted driving laws vary by state, and if you drive into a neighboring state with different laws, you better make sure to follow their laws on the subject, or you'll end up facing their penalties.

For example, handheld phones are permitted in Idaho, but one state over in Montana, you can still  text while driving.  Does this mean that you can legally engage in these behaviors while driving through those states? Yes. Does it mean you should? No. Just because something is legal doesn't necessarily mean it's wise.


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What Is Washington Doing To Prevent Distracted Driving?

Washington’s tough stance on distracted driving is starting to see results. Between 2017 and 2018, the percentage of drivers using cell phones dropped from 5.7% to 3.4%. 

Lawmakers in this state are continuing to look at the problem and find more solutions to make Washington’s roads safer. There's currently a bill being considered that would double penalties for distracted driving in school zones, crosswalks, and in the vicinity of playgrounds.

So What Can You Do?

Quite simply, just put the phone away — even if that means in the glove compartment. The fines themselves are definitely not worth it, let alone the more serious consequences to you and others on the road. Let’s all just get where we’re going safely and save the texting until you get home.

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