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Friday, May 11, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cell phone, text message bans for drivers become state law

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Hang up or pay up: Using your hands to talk on the phone or tap out a text message while behind the wheel will be illegal next year.

Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the measures into law Friday, flanked by children who suffered serious injuries after being hit by drivers.

Under the new laws, drivers who read and compose text messages or talk on a cell phone without a hands-free device could face a $101 ticket. The text-messaging ban takes effect Jan. 1; the cell-phone law will be enforced starting in July 2008.

Drivers are exempt in some situations, including emergencies, and neither offense will be enough to get a driver pulled over by the police.

But parents of children injured in collisions with automobiles said the new laws are still a major improvement.

Cindy Baker-Williams and her son Billy were among those who stood by as Gregoire signed the bills. Billy, 12, suffered a brain injury four years ago while walking to the school bus. Witnesses to the crash said the driver was talking on a cell phone at the time, Baker-Williams said.

"It's a very emotional time," she said. "Behind this bill, we see faces of people in our community who hopefully will never have to go through a pedestrian-car accident."

Billy Williams, who was in a coma for nearly a month and suffered injuries to his brain's speech centers, now helps his mom keep an eye out for distracted drivers.

"Every single time I see a person on a cell phone, I say 'A person on a cell phone!' I just, like, scream it out," he said Friday.

Drivers who cut in line at the ferry terminal also could get a $101 ticket and be sent to the back of the line, under another measure the governor signed Friday. The ferry-line law takes effect in July.

A fourth driving-related bill approved by Gregoire takes aim at dangerous commercial vehicles, including increased penalties for multiple safety violations.

The bill was inspired by two scientists who were killed in 2005 when a load of logs spilled from a speeding, overweight truck near Humptulips.

In other action, Gregoire signed into law a package of child welfare reforms, which the governor said will help keep foster children safe. Among the new laws are measures that:

--Require the Department of Social and Health Services to conduct background checks and determine services needed for caregivers before returning children to their birth parents.

The measure is called "Sirita's Law" for Sirita Sotelo, a 4-year-old Lake Stevens girl who was beaten to death in 2005 after she was taken out of foster care and placed with her father and stepmother.

--Call for detailed court documentation, including parents' substance abuse, mental health and injuries to a child when the state recommends that a child be returned home after being removed.

That law is called the "Rafael Gomez Act," named for the 2-year-old Ephrata boy who died after being returned to live with his birth mother in 2003.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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