The Dalles Police Officer Jeff Kienlen just got back from a traffic conference, where discussion touched on the fact that fatal crashes are on the rise, mostly due to distracted driving.
And so the timing is apt for the Oct. 1 start of Oregon’s new distracted driving law, which bans holding a cell phone or other electronic device while driving. And no, you can’t whip out your cell phone at a stop sign or stop light either.
“Because how many times have you been sitting behind someone and the light goes green and they don’t move because they’re staring at their cell phone?” Kienlen said.
For years, there were no laws on the books regarding use of cell phones while driving. Then a law came down banning cell phone use unless it was work-related. That exemption was soon discarded and replaced in 2009 with a restriction on talking or texting while driving.
However, the law was silent on other uses of a cell phone, such as navigating, listening to music or scrolling through social media.
This new law closes that loophole, and also carries with it much more significant penalties.
The current fine is $160. Now, the first ticket, if the violation did not contribute to a crash, will be $260. A second ticket within 10 years of the first — and not contributing to a crash — carries a $435 fine. A third violation within 10 years is a crime, a Class B misdemeanor, carrying a minimum of a $2,000 fine and the possibility of a year in jail.
And Kienlen thinks some people could definitely be at risk of jail time. “There’s several people in town that I, as the traffic officer, have given at least three cell phone citations to,” he said.
So far this year, the police department has written 205 citations for using a cell phone while driving.
Only emergency personnel will be allowed to use cell phones while driving. Drivers can make 911 calls only if no one else can. People such as bus drivers will be allowed to use two-way radios.
The phone can still be used in hands-free mode, if the driver is 18 years or older.
Smart phones and Androids have hands-free apps.
The IOS 11 operating system for smart phones comes out this fall and will include a “do not disturb while driving” mode. Android devices also have “no texting” apps.
The only time a phone can be touched while driving is a single touch or swipe to activate or deactivate the phone. That means the phone can be touched to answer a call or to hang up, for example, provided the call is then coming through on speaker phone, he said.
Now, tickets can only be written if an officer actually sees a person talking into the phone, or sees them texting. That can be hard to prove.
“We see a lot of people that we believe are actually using their phone in violation of the current law, but without seeing them talking on it, or knowing exactly what app they’re using, we couldn’t necessarily prove they were using it as a communication device,” Kienlen said.
“Because how many times do you drive down the road and you see the person in the car beside you and ahead of you constantly looking down in their lap and they’re driving. You know what they’re doing but it makes it hard to prove.”
He’s pulled over people who were holding their phone near their face, but they denied they were talking on it. Now, just holding the phone is grounds for a ticket.
One of the legislators who voted against the bill was State Rep. John Huffman, R-59, who represents The Dalles.
He’s fully opposed to people using their phones while driving — “My advice to people is, ‘Hang up, stupid,’” — but he sees the law as akin to a “nanny state” rule that’s “getting down in the weeds in people’s business and telling them what to do.
“I support the context, but for God’s sake, can’t people be smart enough to do it on their own without being threatened with pretty stiff penalties?” said Huffman.
He’s put many miles on his car — in one week alone driving on Interstate 84 he had to swerve and honk to avoid people veering toward him while on their phone — and constantly sees the dangers of distracted driving. But he also thinks there’s already a rule on the books against distracted driving that could be enforced.
“Even though I voted against the bill for the reasons stated, I still think people need to get a clue that folks are dying out there,” Huffman 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.
Kienlen said, “Another interesting change in the new law is that now you will no longer be able to operate your cell phone while on premises open to the public,” such as parking lots.
“If you are parked in a parking space, that is fine, that’s no different than being parked on the side of the road,” he said. “If your wheels are moving in a public parking lot, then you could be cited.”