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Oregon Senate prez wants distracted driving penalties on par with drunk driving

Posted by on December 16th, 2016 at 12:02 pm

Distracted driver being distracted.jpg

Stop it. You’re drunk.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

The Oregon Department of Transportation has been beating a steady drum all year about one very important part of their approach to traffic safety: distracted driving. Now it looks like the Oregon legislature has their back and we could see a major change to the law in the 2017 session.

According to a story in the Salem Statesmen-Journal Wednesday, Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) wants to significantly ramp up the legal consequences for people caught driving while texting, talking, or using social media apps. In fact, he’s so concerned about the threat of distractions that he wants to expand Oregon’s existing cell phone law (ORS 811.507) and make the penalties commensurate with driving under the influence.

From the Statesmen-Journal:

Courtney said the pervasiveness of distracted drivers led him to believe a harsher punishment is needed.

“You drive anywhere… you can see it,” he said.

Injuries and crashes caused by distracting driving have skyrocketed, he added, but many people don’t take its illegalness seriously.

“It’s just as deadly as drunk driving,” Courtney said.

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Courtney testified Wednesday in front of the Joint Senate and House Judiciary Committees. We contacted his office and got a copy of his testimony (PDF) and the current bill proposal, LC 1105 (PDF).

In addition to much stronger consequences, the bill would alter the definition of what type of device and behaviors are prohibited.

Here’s the old definition:

“Mobile communication device” means a text messaging device or a wireless, two-way communication device designed to receive and transmit voice or text communication.”

And the new one:

“Mobile electronic device” means an electronic device that is not permanently installed in a motor vehicle.

The law would add that use of the device includes (but is not limited to), “text messaging, voice communication, entertainment, navigation, accessing the Internet or producing electronic mail.” You would also be violating the law simply if you held the device in your hand “for any purpose”. This is much stronger than the existing that is only triggered when someone is having a two-way communication and allows people to turn a device on or off.

The current law comes with a maximum fine of $500. Courtney thinks that’s not sending a strong enough message. He wants to increase that max fine to $6,250 or one year in prison or both. And it wouldn’t stop there.

courtney

If someone was stopped three or more times within a 10-year period they could face a maximum of five years in prison and up to $125,000 in fines. The proposed bill would also trigger felony charges on someone’s third conviction. There would be a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first-time conviction and $1,500 for the second conviction. A third conviction would be treated as a felony and would come with a $2,000 minimum fine unless the person was given a prison sentence.

In addition to harsher criminal and financial penalties, the bill would wipe away many of the exceptions for cell phone use while driving that the current law allows. If passed, the new law would only allow use of a mobile device under three basic circumstances: calling for emergency medical assistance; operating an ambulance or emergency vehicle; or if using a hands-free accessory. The existing law had several more exceptions including ones for police officers, tow truck drivers, amateur radio users, utility workers, and transit operators.

In his testimony, Courtney said the tougher measures are necessary to counter the threat the behavior poses to all road users. “Distracted driving related injuries and deaths are becoming an epidemic,” he said. “Until we, as a state, take distracted driving as seriously as drunk driving we aren’t going to be able to change behavior.”

ODOT shares Courtney’s concerns. They’ve convened a Distracted Driving Task Force (of which Senator Courtney is a member) and have produced PSAs and other educational material about the problem. In March the agency called distracted driving an “epidemic.” Then in April they held a major press conference in front of the state capitol to announce the purchase of 40 unmarked Oregon State Police patrol cars that would be used to catch cell phone users.

Will the new law apply to bicycle riders? So far it’s still not completely clear. As we’ve reported in the past, all Oregon laws that apply to “vehicles” also apply to bicycles unless specifically called out otherwise. In this case the current language used is “motor vehicle” which would appear to exclude a bicycle. Since this looks to be a serious effort to change the existing law we should clean up the language and give people more clarity on this issue once and for all.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Dick Button
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Dick Button

I passed a driver on her phone on SW Moody last night. She had her window down and was going slowly, so I said “Please get off your phone, it is dangerous!”.

She replied “Well I don’t know where I’m going”.

“That’s better than not knowing if you are about to hit and kill someone”.

todd boulanger
Guest
todd boulanger

I would add even “hands free” to the list of prohibited devices in use by a motor vehicle operator while driving…if one were to reference the new research about the high level of distraction talking on the phone is when looking at brainwaves etc.

[Though I doubt they could accomplish this in the current step – too great of leap…and would likely cause all OR legislators to be in jail after their first term…at least those without chauffeurs.]

9watts
Guest
9watts

Fantastic!
And about time.

I’m just waiting for the pushback, and the lame excuses by the usual suspects.

Spiffy
Subscriber

the use of a hands-free device would itself trigger the law, since it’s an electronic device not permanently installed…

we need to ban driver phone conversations completely…

holding a device isn’t what’s as dangerous as being drunk, it’s the actual phone conversation that’s dangerous…

rainbike
Guest
rainbike

I don’t think that the problem is that the current fine is too low. I think that the problem is that the current law is not adequately enforced.

Spiffy
Subscriber

with that language you’d be violating the law by looking at the digital watch on your wrist…

JeffS
Guest
JeffS

Garbage legislation.

We hand out hand-slap penalties to people whose driving failures result in collisions, injuries and deaths, and yet we’re want more speculative, supposedly preventative, legislation?

I have a huge problem with that we know are not going to be enforced. Passing a law to send a public message is problematic. Passing a law you can’t actively enforce is problematic. Enforcing penalties selectively is hugely problematic.

J_R
Guest
J_R

Killing of people by drunk drivers results in a slap on the wrist.

People have become so confident in their ability to navigate while talking and texting, we’ve lost the battle already.

rick
Guest
rick

Yes indeed! I saw people using cell phones while driving through dangerous intersections during Wednesday’s snow storm.

mran1984
Guest
mran1984

I would rather be hit by someone who is intoxicated than the typical phone addict. People cannot drive with the idiot enabling device in their clutches.

Buzz
Guest
Buzz

It won’t make one bit of difference if cops like Balzer continue to be indifferent to these offences.

CaptainKarma
Guest
CaptainKarma

The corporations will put a stop to this toot-sweet, esp under the new regime. This is like crack-cocaine to people who do it, and there’s far too much profit to be impinged upon. Why are you all riding bikes anyway? Hummers & limos and self-reliance is the new mantra.

Tim
Guest
Tim

I would like to see what would happen with enforcement of the existing laws, before increasing penalties for laws that are not enforced.

I invite any officer to ride along with me and ticket the drivers on their phones or failing to stop for pedestrians.

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

Would the law restrict GPS units mounted on the windshield or dashboard? Such devices can remove distractions by making navigation easier than other (still legal) options (paper map, or slip of paper with handwritten directions).

Dave
Guest
Dave

On-the-spot destruction of the phone by the police officer. Make it cost, make it hurt.

rachel b
Guest
rachel b

Thanks, Peter Courtney. For the common sense.

Alexis
Guest
Alexis

How would this affect Uber and Lyft drivers? Most of them use their phones on mounts to access the app – not “permanently installed” per the new proposed law. I assume they would be required to pull over in order to use the app, which, frankly, I’d be a huge fan of.

Austin
Guest
Austin

Its a Simple soultion…Stay off the damn phone when your driving nuff said

Tom Hardy
Guest
Tom Hardy

Personally I don’t think PPB will enforce the laws as Mr. Courtney defined it. From my observations, there is no enforcement of DUI or mobile phone laws.
What needs to happen is citizen tickets or citations given to patrol persons that do not notice or disregard both DUI and Mobile phone violations by motorists.
An example is the article early this week of a cyclists that slapped a car of a motorist that was busy talking on a phone and then chased down by a police person that witnessed the car slap but disregarded the motor operator using the phone.

bikeninja
Guest
bikeninja

The thing that would really make these potential laws work is a real time phone company interface that the cops can use to check if a motorist was using a device at the time a traffic infraction occured. So if a motorist right hooks you and a cop arrives they get fined $$, or go to jail for repeat offenders.

m
Guest
m

‘“Mobile electronic device” means an electronic device that is not permanently installed in a motor vehicle.’

So only rich folks with newer cars and on board navigation can use GPS from now on?
If a person has an after market GARMIN GPS device mounted on their dash with a suction cup is not ok but if I have an on board navigation system in a fancy new car, that is ok?

Matt S.
Guest
Matt S.

I see people with smart phones mounted to their bike, does this count as well?

Allan L.
Guest
Allan L.

Serious driver training and licensing standards would help a bit.

bikeninja
Guest
bikeninja

If these laws pass, we could hire an additional 100 unmarked bicycle cops and pay for them with the proceeds of the fines. This would clean up our road congestion problems and probably cut out 80% of the accidents.

chris
Guest
chris

All these phones have GPS, right? Make them come with programming that disables the phone/texting when the GPS detects it moving over 3, maybe 5 mph? Need the map on you phone, pull over to look at it.

chris
Guest
chris

your phone, you phone, oops

Tom Hardy
Guest
Tom Hardy

With salt being used now on roads, if the car has been driven over 10 years on roads with salt in winter the car is unsafe, and the suspension mounts are rusted past the failure point for safety.
We will need to be enforcing this for vision zero.

Kittens
Subscriber
Kittens

I would love to know what it would take to get some enforcement. The fact that it is so easy to spot and widely pervasive makes it beyond frustrating to someone who such as myself who is focused solely on the task at hand.

caesar
Guest
caesar

Hopeful
Of course not. The research shows that talking to others in the car doesn’t affect distractability the same. I’m not sure why it doesn’t. Maybe because passengers in the car can also see/ sence times when it’s important to stop and pay closer attention to what’s going on? Maybe because passengera can help alert driver when there is an emergency?
I read (In NE Journal?) that studies following drivers who were using hands free technology showed that they drove like someone who would blow a .10 on a breathalyzer (worse than .08-which is leagally drunk.)
Recommended 7

I’m not aware of any research comparing safety of hands free device conversations with safety of driver-passenger conversations. Can you cite any? I believe that its reasonable and prudent to assume that if I’m talking with someone and thinking about that conversation while driving, it matters not a bit if that person is sitting next to me or in a building across town. I’m happy to be proven wrong, though, if (as you say) reliable data shows otherwise.

bendite
Guest
bendite

Having a conversation utilizes parts of the brain committed to vision, because as you talk with someone, you create a scene of sorts in your head. It’s one reason I can’t track novels on audio while driving because I’m paying attention to the road. When you have someone in the car with you, they cooperate with you in a sense, and the conversation ebbs and flows with the road/driving conditions.

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

This should apply to all road users. You don’t need to look at your phone when you are crossing a street as a pedestrian or on your bike, either.

Pat Ell
Guest
Pat Ell

Relieved to see some initiative to address this problem. For any of us who pay attention, the number of motorists who are driving distracted has reached an epidemic level, and that is putting lives at risk.

Matt S.
Guest
Matt S.

I’m a driver from time to time and I’ve never had a smart phone, just always a flip. I received a smart phone for my birthday. It’s amazing what the smart phone does to you when driving. I find myself reaching for it at the light, stop sign, etc. I shocked myself how easy it is to want to play on the thing while at rest. I’ve started turning it off when I get in the car.

Edward
Guest
Edward

This is so sad. This is the wrong legal response.

Why not just make phone companies liable for accidents that happen when people are using their phones and have a motor vehicle accident. Or split liability between phone company and the operating system and/or app running while driving. That way, the phone companies would each have an incentive to work towards technological fixes to disable phones while people are driving — instead of competing to keep us all addicted to our devices.

Blaming the people and punishing them is … just a sad waste. Why should corporations get a free pass to ruin society, stay profitable and bear no risk? And instead we invent a new morality (that isn’t realistic) and blame and punish random individuals when things go wrong. Kind of disgusting really.

Each phone should come equipped with “Driving Mode”. You go faster than 10 mph and It’ll only let you use a hands free navigating or map application, but not make phone calls, email, text, do social media, etc. At most, it’d make a noise to let you know to pull over and park to answer the phone, etc.

Lizzy
Guest
Lizzy

I got hurt badly by a distracted driver. She was reaching for a cell phone on her floorboard. Rammed me at 40mph while I was at a stop light in my smaller car. Still trying to recover – year 3.

Sandy
Guest
Sandy

The way I see it, people who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time really need to make up their mind which one they are going to do. I am a trucker and occasionally have to make or receive calls while on the job. I also have over 40 years experience behind the wheel and have never even come close to having an accident while using my phone. I do however use a hands free kit. I think one of the biggest things that would help is if more people took drivers education before getting a drivers license. When I was in high school it was required and you couldn’t graduate or get a drivers license till you were 18 without it. We have millions of people in this country that have never taken drivers ed. I think that anyone trying to get a drivers license in this country should have to take drivers ed first which would seriously reduce traffic accidents. The other thing is they should have some real driving experience before they try doing anything else while driving. Cell phone laws need to apply to everyone. Cops included.