Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on December 16th, 2016 at 12:02 pm
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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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.
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 – firstname.lastname@example.org