Tina Meyer describes her son Cody Meyer, 23, as her best friend. Cody died last May from a heart attack related to injuries sustained in a distracted-driver incident. Tina testified in support of legislation proposed this session that would prohibit drivers from using their hands to operate their phones while driving. Photo provided by Tina Meyer

Distracted driving: Legislation aims to get drivers’ attention off their phones and back on the road

  • Thu Apr 20th, 2017 1:00pm
  • News

Twenty-three-year-old Cody Meyer loved hiking at Wallace Falls in Gold Bar, Washington, and lighting off fireworks on the Fourth of July. He spent time playing video games with his father and brother and hanging out with his girlfriend, Nicole.

Arlington-resident Tina Meyer, describes her son, Cody, as her best friend.

“The one thing that a lot of people don’t get with their boys is affection as they get older,” Tina said. “Cody was the type of man who would always give me a kiss on the lips.”

Cody was working as a construction flagger on Cedar Grove Road near Issaquah on Dec. 15, 2015, when a jeep estimated travelling at 40 mph struck him. The driver, Andrew Richwine, had glanced down at his phone.

Legislation proposed this session – SB 5289 and HB 1371 – would prohibit drivers from using their cellphones while driving. Distracted driving occurs when the driver engages in activities that hinder his or her ability to safely operate a motor vehicle on a highway. Both bills passed their respective house of origin.

SB 5289 was passed by both the House and the Senate today. Next, Gov. Inslee will determine whether to veto or sign the bill into law.

Meyer was rushed to Harborview Hospital in Seattle on that December date with a traumatic brain injury, a torn kidney, bruising on his lungs and a broken leg.

As his mother entered the hospital, she was already making plans to build a ramp in the house to help Cody move around more easily in a wheelchair.

“I wasn’t accepting what I was seeing, as bad as it was,” Tina Meyer said. “I was already making the plans to get him home to take care of him”

Tina Meyer visited Cody at the hospital each day. She arrived at seven in the morning and began taking care of her son. Every day, Cody’s family and the Harborview staff looked for purposeful movement.

Twenty days after Cody arrived at the hospital, he puckered up his lips to give his mother a kiss – his first purposeful movement.

Cody was transferred to Kindred Hospital in Seattle in January 2016 to continue his recovery. He was unable to speak, but could communicate through movements such as thumbs up and thumbs down signs. One day, he flipped off his aunt after she played Taylor Swift’s song “Shake it Off” and grabbed Cody’s hands and started dancing with him.

“That was his character, he was a screwball,” said Tina. “For him to turn around and flip my sister off like that, it was him.”

Tina Meyer said her son was there mentally, but was struggling physically. He had been diabetic since childhood, so his broken leg wouldn’t heal.

On May 23, 2016, his brother’s birthday, Cody was transferred to Josephine Sunset Rehabilitation Center in Stanwood. The next day Cody suffered a massive heart attack due to complications from his accident. He was rushed to Everett’s Providence Hospital where he died.

• • •

April is designated by the National Safety Council as Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

In 2015, 167 people died in Washington in accidents involving a distracted driver.

• • •

On April 12, the House passed an amended SB 5289, sponsored by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, which would prohibit drivers from using a portable electronic device while driving. This includes using fingers to read, view, browse, save, retrieve messages, or watch videos. Holding a mobile device in one or two hands would also be banned.

Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, rose in opposition to the bill during the House floor debate because, he said, the legislation goes too far.

“If there’s not some other infraction that’s going on or some sign that they’ve actually been distracted by having that [a phone] in their hand, I don’t think they should be pulled over,” he said. He believes it would be more reasonable to classify holding a phone while driving as a secondary offense or infraction.

Officers now can only stop motorists for primary traffic infractions. An officer can only pull a driver over for a secondary traffic infraction when the driver is committing another infraction, such as speeding.

Rep. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane Valley, also voted to oppose the bill. He said during the Apr. 12 House floor debate that he’s afraid SB 5289 would target lower income populations who may not be able to afford vehicles that sync up with portable electronic devices and provide hands-free use of cellphones.

Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma, voted in favor of the bill. He explained during the House debate that distracted drivers sometimes hold up traffic.

“We do so many things down here to try and fix traffic congestion and to keep people moving and these folks [distracted drivers] are just a menace and we need to do something to get their attention,” he said. “I think this bill is exactly the right idea and I urge your support.”

SB 5289 struggled Tuesday and Wednesday this week before finally gaining Senate approval after it had earlier rejected House amendments. Finally, Wednesday the House withdrew its major amendments, approving the bill on a 61-36 vote. The Senate gave its final support on a 39-10 vote late Wednesday. The measure now heads to the governor for his signature. If signed, it takes effect Jan. 1, 2019.

An amendment adopted April 12 specified insurance companies would be notified if drivers received two or more fines for using an electronic device within five years. That section of the bill was redacted before final passage, which means that drivers’ insurance companies will not be notified of distracted driving infractions.

A companion bill, HB 1371 sponsored by Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, passed the House, but failed to gain Senate consideration this session.

Distracted driving affected Sen. Rivers personally. She’s prime-sponsor of SB 5289.

A distracted motorist had struck her husband’s car. He didn’t suffer injuries, but the car had extensive damage.

During her frequent drives between the Capitol in Olympia and her home in La Center, north of Vancouver, Washington, Rivers says she often observes cars weaving, which she associates with someone using a cellphone.

“You would think people would realize they are driving a two-ton vehicle that could cause a lot of damage,” she said. “My hope is that SB 5289 will cause people to wake up and become accountable not only to themselves but to others.”

So does Tina Meyer whose son died from injuries when struck by a distracted driver.

Alarming numbers

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission reports that one in 10 people are distracted while driving on the roads in this state. Seventy percent of observed distracted drivers were using cellphones.

According to a study by Dr. David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, cellphone use can cause inattention blindness. Talking on a cellphone while driving diverts the driver’s attention to the phone conversation and away from the road, which can lead the driver to fail to see traffic signals or other signs.

If SB 5289 becomes law, a base fine of $48 and a total fine of $136 could be applied the first time someone is pulled over for using a portable electronic device when driving.

Drivers who are caught using a portable electronic device a second time would receive a base fine of $96 and a total fine of up to $235.

The base penalties would go to the Distracted Driving Prevention account, which would fund programs geared toward reducing distracted driving.

Today, driving laws state that bringing a phone to the ear to make a call, or sending, reading, or writing a text message, are primary traffic infractions. They are not criminal acts.

However, current driving laws don’t prohibit other forms of digital communications, such as Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram.

SB 5289 also includes a $100 fine for other forms of distracted driving including activities such as eating, putting on makeup, or attending to children or pets.

Exceptions are made if a driver is contacting emergency services with a portable electronic device, a transit employee is using the radio system to contact the dispatch center, a commercial driver’s use of an electronic device is in the scope of employment and complies with federal law, or the driver is operating an authorized emergency vehicle.

During his 29 years in law enforcement at Puyallup Police Department, Bob Thompson pulled over thousands of drivers. He estimates that a couple thousand of those times were related to cellphone use.

He continues to notice drivers on their phones during his commute to his job as the Statewide Law Enforcement Liaison for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC) in Olympia. Recently, he witnessed a woman yelling at a video chat while driving under the speed limit.

“The amount of cellphones in the hands of drivers is unreal,” he said.

During his time as a police officer Thompson couldn’t cite drivers if they were doing something on their phone other than calling or texting. He is hopeful the possibility of receiving a ticket will deter people from using their phones while driving.

“We want to save lives, we want people to make better decisions,” he said. “The first better decision people can make is putting the phone down.”

Tina Meyer, mother of Cody, agrees.

A study conducted by the Washington State Board of Health reported that SB 5289 would decrease distracted driving. Evidence suggests that decreased distracted driving would result in improved health outcomes, especially for young drivers. People aged 16-29 are more likely to be distracted when driving.

Tina Meyer is an advocate for the education of distracted driving in her son’s honor. She testified in favor of SB 5289.

“I know Cody would have wanted me to help create change because of what happened with him,” she said. “Sitting back and doing nothing is not something I’m very well known for and so I have to do something to create change.”

Tina and her husband requested that Andrew Richwine, the distracted driver who caused their son’s death and was convicted, should not go to prison. They didn’t want Richwine to be away from his two young children.

At a trial April 7 in King County Superior Court, Richwine was sentenced to six months of work release, which means he can look after his children at his home during the day and then return to jail at night. He was also sentenced to 240 hours of community service and will lose his driver’s license for two years. In March, he pleaded guilty to felony vehicular homicide.

Although Meyer wants the distracted driving laws to be stricter than the language in SB 5289, she believes the bill is a large step in the right direction.

She says that distracted driving affects the whole nation and says national limits should be imposed. Currently there is no national law prohibiting distracted driving.

Her hope is that drivers will put down their phones.

“It only takes one time of someone leaving their lane while playing with their phone to cause the death of another,” she said. As the mother of a victim, she knows.

(This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation. Reach reporter Grace Swanson at grace.swanson47@gmail.com.)