New distracted driving law in effect Sunday

Alex Paul

If your right hand feels like it’s attached to your cellphone, Sunday is going to be an extremely difficult day for you.

That’s when Oregon’s new distracted driving law goes into effect. The law will make it illegal to hold phones or other electronic devices while driving. That means no texting and no phone calls unless your vehicle has a hands-free system in place.

And don’t even think about playing an electronic game while behind the wheel, unless you’re willing make a $160 donation to one of Linn County’s many fine courts.

Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, was the bill’s chief sponsor and said it is designed to save lives.

“Nationally, 1 in 4 vehicle accidents involve distracted driving,” explained Olson, a retired Oregon State Police officer. “It’s a major concern.”

He added that the new law also closes loopholes in the current law by addressing all types of electronic devices, not just cellular phones.

“The law doesn’t say you can’t use them, you just can’t have them in your hand,” he said. “You can still swipe something on or off. We just don’t want you holding the device. That’s the key.”

Linn County Sheriff Bruce Riley said there won’t be a grace period associated with enforcement of the new law.

“Lots of people use electronic devices while driving. We all see it,” he said. “Now, holding a phone or even seeing a glow in the vehicle at night will give law enforcement folks probable cause to stop a vehicle.”

Riley said he has instructed his deputies to have “zero tolerance” about the issue.

“We are done warning folks. Done educating folks about this,” he said. “We are going to enforce this law. All too often we see crashes where a vehicle is following another vehicle too closely because the driver has his head down using a cell phone or checking Facebook.”

And Riley reminded drivers that cell phones and other electronic devices have computer memory systems, “so if someone is involved in an accident, information from that phone’s use can be used in court.”

It has been illegal to text or use a cell phone without a hands-free device in Oregon since 2009.

The new law — House Bill 2597 — allows drivers to “swipe” a cellular device attached to a hands-free carriage to activate a navigation system, but don’t even think about typing in an address unless you’re willing to part with $160 for your first offense.

Drivers are allowed to use cellular devices if they pull safely off a roadway, or to report an emergency situation via the 911 system.

Fines increase under the new law to $160 for the first offense and escalate to as much as $2,500 for a third offense within 10 years, and that could also include up to six months in jail.

Beginning in January, judges will have the option of waiving a fine for a first-time offense and sentence the violator to attending a distracted driving avoidance class. But the violation will not be expunged from the driver’s record.

Drivers under the age of 18 cannot use any cellular device while driving, even if it is hands-free.

“Traffic issues are a big beef for everyone. It cuts across all social lines,” Riley said. “Bad drivers irritate all of us. We can do all kinds of saturation patrols, but it all comes down to just being a decent person and taking personal responsibility while driving.”

Lt. Brad Liles of the Albany Police Department said distracted driving is evident in numerous rear-end accidents in the community.

“People become distracted with their cell phones and they end up following other vehicles too closely,” he said. “It’s especially noticeable at stoplights, when they don’t see brake lights for a second or two.”

Liles said Albany officers will enforce the new law beginning Sunday.

“We hope this will get people to understand that all communication devices must be in a cradle or hardwired into a vehicle to be used legally,” Liles said. “We know it will be a hard habit to break for some people, but they are going to have to do it. We hope it will cut accidents dramatically.”

A similar law went into effect in Washington state in July.


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