April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and although distracted driving rates in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties are on the decline, it remains a problem statewide.

According to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC), distracted driving is responsible for 30 percent of car crash fatalities. But progress is being made. WTSC’s 2018 observational study found that the number of drivers holding cell phones dropped 40 percent in 2018 from 2017. But the study also showed an increase in the number of drivers engaged in other distracting behaviors, like eating, tuning a radio or attending to children.

Kitsap County saw the most significant decrease in distracted driving rates in 2018. In 2016, the county’s rate was 20.5 percent. It dropped to 12.6 percent in 2017 and 4 percent in 2018.

Pierce County’s rate dropped from 18.4 percent in 2016 to 5.8 percent in 2018, and Thurston County’s rate dropped from 11 percent in 2016 to 4.2 percent in 2018.

Kenton Brine — president of the NW Insurance Council, a nonprofit, insurer-supported organization — warned in a prepared statement that distracted driving-related crashes can have costly consequences when it comes to insurance rates.

“Insurers as well as traffic safety experts know that distracted driving-related crashes can impact the cost of insurance,” Brine said. “New laws in many states, including Washington and Oregon, are intended to remind drivers about the dangers and consequences of distracted driving — but it is up to all of us to heed the warnings.”

Broadly speaking, distracted driving is defined as any activity that takes a driver’s attention off the road, such as eating, talking to passengers, and talking or texting on a cellphone. The latter is the riskiest distraction for drivers. The WTSC says talking on a cellphone increases the risk of a crash by three times, and texting increases the crash of a risk by 23 times. Even drivers talking on a hands-free device can reportedly miss up to 50 percent of the activity taking place in their driving environment.

Last summer, Washington’s new “Driving Under the Influence of Electronics” law, also known as the E-DUI law, went into effect. The law strengthened penalties against the use of hand-held devices. A driver’s first infraction will cost them $136; a second infraction within five years costs them $234. Cellphone driving infractions are also now included in state records available to insurance companies.

“Whether your own insurance premium will be affected by a citation for distracted driving — and what that impact could be — will vary, depending on your insurance company and your policy,” Brine said. “It’s a good idea to check with your insurance company or agent to find out more about those potential consequences. An even better plan, however, is to avoid the ticket or the crash. When you’re driving, keep your hands on the wheel, your eyes on the road, and your mind on your driving.”