Higher fines, jail with Ore. distracted driving law Oct. 1

Starting Oct. 1, drivers in Oregon can be pulled over for not only texting and talking on their cell phones, but also for navigating, using social media and any other "hands-on" cell phone and electronics use. 

Repeat offenders will face steeper fines and as much as a year in jail.

Officials are hoping the changes, which stem from the passage of House Bill 2597 during the 2017 Oregon Legislature, will help officers nab reckless drivers and curb dangerous distracted driving behaviors.

Wording on the previous cell phone driving law made texting and talking on the phone the only primary distracted driving offenses, meaning if an officer spotted someone behind the wheel reading a Kindle or scrolling through Facebook, they couldn't pull them over solely for that.

The new law makes it illegal to drive in Oregon while holding or using any electronic device, including cell phones, tablets, GPS or laptops.

Hands-free and built-in devices are allowed under the law.

Oregon Distracted Driving Law by KGW News on Scribd

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Other exemptions include those making medical emergency calls, truck and bus drivers following federal rules, two-way radio use by school drivers and utility drivers during in the scope of their employment, police, fire, ambulance and emergency vehicle operators during the scope of their employment and ham radio operators.

Those convicted of a first-time distracted driving offense not contributing to a crash face a presumptive fine of $260, with a maximum fine of $1,000. Starting on Jan. 1, the court may suspend the fine for first-time offenders if the driver completes an approved distracted driving avoidance course within four months.

Although the fine would be suspended, the violation would still remain on the offender's driving record.

A second-time offense or one involving a crash carries a presumptive fine of $435 and a maximum fine of $2,500.

Committing a third distracted driving offense in a 10-year span is considered a misdemeanor. The minimum fine is $2,000, but repeat offenders could face a $6,250 fine and up to one year in jail.

Local law enforcement agencies are working to prepare patrol officers for the change.

Marion County Sheriff's Office spokesman Lt. Chris Baldridge said all deputies were given copies of the new law and will be trained on how it differs from the previous statute.

As always, distracted driving will continue to be a focus of enforcement patrols, he said.

In Oregon, on average, more than 11 people die in distracted driving crashes each year, and over 2,800 are injured, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation. Every one of those deaths is preventable, said sheriff's office officials during their 2016 campaign against distracted driving.

"We, as law enforcement, members of the medical community and the state of Oregon, have all had the opportunity to notify a family when their loved ones have been killed," Baldridge said. "There's nothing worse in the world."

Oregon State Police spokesman Sgt. Michael Berland said the agency does not expect to have any different protocols for pulling over drivers and will "continue to do business as normal."

"Like all new legislative changes, we will simply refresh our publications and push out updates to the new laws to our troopers in the field," he said.

Salem Police Lt. Dave Okada said all officers at the department will undergo training on the new law. Unless they are investigating a crash, officers will need to see the cell phone violation taking place in order to enforce it.

"We see distracted driving as a very real issue in addressing safety in our community and will duly enforce any and all laws," Okada said.

The old law's loophole traces back a 2015 ruling. An Oregon state trooper pulled over a Beaverton woman after spotting the tell-tale glow from an electronic device light up her face while she was driving along a Washington County road. After the trooper pulled the woman over, he said he smelled alcohol.

He performed a field sobriety test and arrested her for DUI. A judge with the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that because the trooper didn't see her talking on the phone or pressing buttons on the phone, he did not have probable cause to pull her over. All evidence from the traffic stop was suppressed.

The court ruled the previous cell phone law doesn't apply to those using the phone; it only affects those communicating on one.

Officers had difficulty enforcing the cell phone ban, even though studies show increasingly more people are dying in traffic accidents related to cell phone use.

Lake Oswego Police Sgt. Clayton Simon said during testimony for the bill that after the ruling the Lake Oswego municipal court experienced a 60 percent drop in warnings and citations.

"And that's not because fewer people are on their phones," Simon said.

Oregon Department of Transportation officials labeled the number of distracted driving-caused crashes an epidemic and said the changes would clarify the law, remove ambiguity and take into account changing technologies.

The bill replaced the term "mobile communication device" with "mobile electronic device" and banned text messaging, talking on the phone, watching, navigation, using the internet and penning emails while driving or stopped at a stoplight or sign.

Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill into law Aug. 2.

For questions, comments and news tips, email reporter Whitney Woodworth at wmwoodwort@statesmanjournal.com, call 503-399-6884 or follow on Twitter @wmwoodworth

© 2017 KGW-TV


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