Oregon Senate OKs strict 'hands-free' driving law

'Distracted driving is today's drunk driving'

Oregon Senate passes distracted...

BEND, Ore. - (Update: Comments from a resident, Redmond police)

The Oregon Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved House Bill 2597, a measure that will forbid drivers from touching any electronic mobile device while driving.

The Senate passed the bill 21-8, but sent it back to the House, for concurrence with revisions. 

The bill forbids talking, texting, movies, emailing, social media or even just holding your cellphone in your hand while driving.

Exceptions include emergency services, forestry, agriculture and some work-related calls.

Many Central Oregonians, including Cathi Weaver, agree with the measure. She said using a cell phone "is distracting, and it does make for poor decisions when you're driving. So it makes sense.

"It's just a shame that we have to enforce it like this and make it a bigger penalty for doing that.  It's kind of like common sense, common courtesy." 

"Wouldn't you be mad if you got hit because somebody was on the phone?" she said.

The law is designed to close a loophole.

Currently, police officers have to actually see you talking into a phone or using your hands to text before they can issue a citation.

Redmond police Lt. Curtis Chambers said, "The law, as interpreted by the Oregon Court of Appeals, has significantly hampered law enforcement efforts to enforce the hands-free mobile device law as it is written currently."

The penalty for getting caught is also much stricter than the previous law. If you're caught once, you can take a distracted-driving course to get the citation off your record. If you are caught twice, you can face a $2,000 fine. If you're caught three times, you could face a fine -- and jail time.

Between 2011-2015 distracted drivers caused 9,951 crashes in Oregon that resulted in 54 deaths. Fourteen of those deaths were directly related to the use of a cellphone.

Bend resident Tom Normandy says he's seen his fair share of distracted driving. "I've seen plenty of bad drivers that I've been behind," he said. 

"I'll immediately try to go around them and as I go around them, sure enough that's what they're doing, they're texting and driving."

It's also the topic of our new KTVZ.COM Poll:  Should state law bar drivers from holding a cellphone behind the wheel? Find the poll halfway down the right side of our home page.


News release from Oregon Senate Democrats:

SALEM –  The Oregon Senate voted to send a bill to the governor for her signature that will improve traffic safety by expanding the definition of distracted driving.

House Bill 2597 – which passed the Senate today on a 21-8 vote – expands on existing law, in which talking or texting on a cell phone while driving already is illegal, to include other activities such as holding a cell phone to play music while driving.

“We are broadening the scope of what qualifies under the definition of using a mobile communication device while driving,” said Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene), who carried the bill in the Senate. “This will help discourage drivers from being distracted by their cell phones or handheld devices and improve traffic safety by reducing a lot of preventable accidents.”

The bill renames the offense of operating a motor vehicle while using a mobile communication device and expands the law. It also increases the penalty for a first offense, as well as penalties for subsequent offenses, and toughens restrictions when the first offense contributes to an accident.

According to an Oregon Department of Transportation study, 4,000 car crashes in 2014 were caused by distracted driving. The real number is likely to be higher, since distracted driving is underreported due to self-reporting and limited detection capabilities.

“Distracted driving is today’s drunk driving,” Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) said. “Related injuries and deaths are becoming an epidemic. Until Oregon takes distracted driving as seriously as drunk driving, we aren’t going to be able to change behavior.”

In 2007, the Legislature passed a bill making it a Class D violation for a minor to operate a motor vehicle while using a mobile communication device. The law was expanded in 2009 to prohibit any person from operating a motor vehicle while using a mobile communication device.

In 2013, the Legislature elevated that offense to a Class C traffic violation. A 2013 Oregon Court of Appeals ruling determined that the law “prohibits talking and texting on a mobile communication device, but not all activities that can be performed using such a device.” That limited the definition to uses such as texting or talking on the phone, but not other distracting activities that can be conducted using a cell phone.

In February of this year, the Distracted Driving Task Force issued a report, including a recommendation that the distracted driving statute be amended to broaden that definition regarding use of a cell phone or handheld device. This bill expands the definition to include all uses of cell phones while driving.

The bill includes several exceptions for forestry or agricultural operations, as well as using devices in the scope of a person’s employment or in emergency situations. It also raises the first offense from a Class C violation to a Class B traffic violation and subsequent penalties rise to Class A traffic violations if they occur within 10 years of the first, or if the first offense contributes to causing an accident.

House Bill 2597 now goes back to the House of Representatives for concurrence.

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