(This story was first published on June 29, 2017)
The Senate approved a no cellphone, no navigation, no social media while driving bill Thursday, but the vote was far from a slam dunk.
House Bill 2597 clarifies that anything a driver could think of doing with a cell phone while driving is illegal. If a police officer sees the white glow of the screen illuminating a driver’s face, even if the officer didn’t see the driver talking or fingering the keys, the officer has witnessed a violation.
Hands-free will be the only legal use of a cell phone as of the bill’s Oct. 1 effective date.
The bill was a recommendation of an Oregon Distracted Driving Task Force convened after the state’s traffic fatalities reversed a decade long slide and began climbing sharply in 2013.
In 2016, 495 people died on Oregon's roads, up 58 percent in three years, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation.
During the debate, some senators wanted to know if very narrow, specific communication scenarios would be prohibited by the law. Examples included communications between a wide load and a pilot car, or agricultural equipment going from field to field, or a ham radio operator passing along emergency information.
The answer: It depends, said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, who introduced the bill to the chamber. If the communications equipment is mounted or bolted into place it’s exempt from the law, he said.
Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, weighed in on the side of ham radio operators. “I ask in my capacity as Kilo Foxtrot Seven Hotel Hotel Foxtrot,” she said.
Prozanski attempted to assure her that licensed amateur radio operators who are over 18 years old are exempted from the no hand-held communications while driving rules, he said.
Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, made a broad critique of the bill, noting that distracted driving has many causes.
“Whether I’m handling a cellphone or I’m chasing the M&M that I just dropped in my lap or the bag of Skittles that’s on the floorboard under my feet, distracted driving is distracted driving,” he said. “Distracted driving should be our target, not the use of mobile electronic devices.”
Senate President Peter Courtney came down from the podium to defend the bill, which he brought into the session. The bill he introduced, however, made driving while using an electronic device a felony akin to drunken driving.
“There has been a 28 percent increase in fatalities because of this thing,” he said waving his own smart phone. “At the same time, we’ve seen drunken driving going down. This is hurting kids who think they are all so invincible.”
The Salem Democrat said he's temped to look at sports scores. “I have to take this and throw it away in the car. I’m weak. I want to see it.”
But crashes happen far too fast when you're texting and driving.
“Even if you are a world class athlete, had incredible coordination and the ability to concentrate and then you look up and all of a sudden -- and 'oh my word' -- your body can’t react. The mind can’t go to the hands and the feet to make things happen. You’re going to hurt somebody.”
The Senate approved the bill on a 21-8 vote with one member absent. House approved the measure on a 46-13 in May. The bill on Monday returns to the House for concurrence with Senate amendments.
The bill sets the maximum fine for violation at $2,000 up from $500.