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A bill to fine drivers $1,000 for using a cellphone is not well thought out

A bill that would raise the fine for using a cellphone or texting while driving to $1,000 is well-intentioned but unlikely to have much effect on motorists' behavior.

Under existing law, using a hand-held phone or texting while driving is a Class D infraction, carrying a maximum fine of $250. Senate Bill 9 would make the offense a Class B infraction, with a maximum fine of $1,000.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill Tuesday.

There a couple of problems with this measure. First, police officers have to witness a driver using a phone. Drivers are smart enough to check for nearby patrol cars before making a call or answering one.

A police officer representing the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police told the committee Tuesday that there are not enough officers to make the prohibition really stick, and if drivers aren't afraid of a ticket, they aren't afraid of breaking the law.

Second, a fine of $1,000 could be catastrophic to a young or low-income driver, giving police officers an incentive to let the motorist off with a warning, defeating the purpose of the stiff fine.

The bill's sponsor, Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, says he wants distracted driving treated like drunken driving.

There are studies that indicate phoning and texting while driving is as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. But Courtney's desire to equate the two under the law is also problematic.

A driver who gets behind the wheel drunk remains drunk for the duration of his trip. He can't instantly sober up if he's pulled over.

A driver who takes a call is impaired only until the call ends — and he can quickly end the call or not take it in the first place if he spots a patrol car.

But the biggest flaw in Courtney's attempt to equate cellphone use and drinking is the list of exemptions that would still be built into the law even under SB 9.

The prohibition against hand-held cellphone use does not apply to police officers, ambulance drivers, other emergency services workers, tow truck drivers or employees of utilities such as gas and power companies while on the job.

If any of those people are found to be driving while intoxicated, they face the same penalties as any other driver. If using a cellphone while driving is just as dangerous, no one should be exempt.

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