A new law that takes aim at distracted driving in Oregon goes into place Oct. 1.
While it’s long been illegal to talk or text behind the wheel without using a hands-free device, a 2015 Oregon court ruling meant police couldn’t pull drivers over for using their mobile electronic device for other purposes. That included uploading photos to social media or even reading a book on an e-reader.
The new law clarifies it is illegal to drive while holding any electronic device.
At a press conference Friday, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, held up a smartphone and said communication technology has come a long way since he was young.
“I’m 74. And I remember when all I had was a pay phone and letters,” Courtney said. “But this allows me a degree of peace and freedom, the likes of which I never knew.”
But, he said, the smartphone is also “extremely dangerous when used in certain ways.”
As part of the bill, lawmakers increased potential fines on distracted driving.
Courtney had wanted the Legislature to give electronics-induced distracted drivers similar penalties to those levied on drivers impaired by alcohol or drugs. But he agreed to the version that eventually passed, which includes fines of up to $2,500 and six months in jail for repeat offenders. For a first-time offense that doesn’t result in a traffic accident, a judge can suspend the fine if the driver completes a distracted driving avoidance class.
“We’re just trying to make [drivers] realize that this thing is every bit as dangerous as a bottle of liquor,” Courtney said.
After a decade of decline, traffic fatalities in Oregon spiked over the past few years.
“We see too often crashes where a car has left the roadway for unknown reasons," said Troy Costales, the administrator of ODOT’s Transportation and Employee Safety Division. “It really leads us to believe that somehow, some way, some sort of distraction was engaged in that particular driver’s decision, or lack of decision making.”
The new law still allows drivers 18 and older to make a phone call or use other functions of their phone if they use a hands-free device. But Costales said ODOT will be holding its employees to an even higher standard.
“As an agency, we’re adopting a ‘do not disturb’ policy, when we are behind the wheel of a vehicle on state business. We are not to touch the phone or answer the phone in any way, shape or form,” he said. “Our primary job is to drive.”
The law applies whenever a vehicle is on a public roadway or parking lot, even if the driver is stopped at a red light. ODOT said motorists who need to access a function of their electronic device should safely pull over to a legal parking space.