More than 130 law enforcement agencies across the state, including those in Thurston County, are increasing distracted driving patrols throughout the month of April.
The increased patrols started April 1 and will continue through April 19, according to a news release from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. The increased patrols come as the state observes April as Distracted Driving Awareness Month.
"We hope that by emphasizing distracted driving prevention this April we can help everyone build safety habits that are not dependent on fear of getting a ticket," said Erika Mascorro, WTSC Program Manager for Distracted Driving, in the news release.
Four law enforcement agencies in Thurston County will increase patrols as part of the effort, including the Olympia Police Department, Thurston County Sheriff's Office, Tenino Police Department and Washington State Patrol.
Motorists who are caught by law enforcement will be ticketed for unfocused driving. They also can receive a "dangerously distracted" citation for committing other traffic violations due to distractions that don't involve cell phone use, the release read.
The statewide distracted driving rate increased from 6.8% in 2019 to 9.4% in 2020, according to the WTSC's 2020 Distracted Driving Observation Survey. The study notes this increase is not statistically significant, but argues the data is still indicative of an increase in high-risk behavior.
Breaking down the statewide increase, distracted driving increased on city streets from 8.1% in 2019 to 17.4% in 2020. At the same time, distracted driving increased from 6.5% in 2019 to 13.2% in 2020 on county roads, according to the survey.
Notably, the survey also found distracted driving decreased on state routes from 6.6% to 5.8% between 2019 and 2020, but again, this margin is not statistically significant.
On city streets, cell phone use while driving increased from 6.3% in 2019 to 11.7% in 2020, the survey found. Meanwhile, cell phone use on county roads increased from 4.8% to 6% of all drivers last year, according to the survey.
Despite the increases, the survey notes case filings for cell phone use while driving decreased dramatically from nearly 6,000 in April 2019 to well bellow 500 in 2020. The report suggests this development is likely due to pandemic restrictions.
Overall, the commission found distracted driver-involved fatalities decreased 24% in 2020, but the largest reductions occurred from January to March — before pandemic restrictions took effect.
The report notes analysts generally believe distraction-involved crashes are under reported due to non-specific reporting practices. More specific reporting practices were implemented last year, the report read.
The commission recommends drivers put cell phones away, passengers politely encourage focused driving and parents lead by example. More practical steps can be found on WTSC's Together We Get There website.
"All of us can work together to encourage focused driving," said WTSC Director Shelly Baldwin in the release. "Together we can make our roads safer."
In addition to this local effort, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is also planning a similar four-hour enforcement effort called Connect to Disconnect on April 8, the release read.