HB 2597, passed recently the Oregon Legislature, expands penalties for having a cellphone in hand while driving to include the possibility of a criminal charge.

Oregon traffic fatalities began climbing in 2013 after a decade-long decline. ODOT reports that traffic fatalities were up 58 percent from 2013 to 2106. The National Safety Council reports that cellphone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year, and some 400,000 injuries. Texting while driving is six times more likely to cause an accident than driving while drunk, according to the NSC.

Teen drivers, in particular, are four times more likely than adults to get into crashes or near-crashes when talking or texting. According to AAA, 94 percent of teen drivers acknowledge the dangers of texting and driving, but 35 percent admitted to doing it anyway.

Oregon outlawed cellphone use while driving by minors in 2007, for all drivers in 2009, and increased the fine from $110 to $160 in 2013. Under the new law effective Oct. 1, a first  offense will cost $265 and a second offense in 10 years, or one that causes an accident, will result in a $440 fine. The fine for a first offense may be eliminated upon completion of a distracted driving course. However, a third offense in 10 years will be charged as a Class B misdemeanor with a minimum $2,000 fine.

"One touch" activation is permitted, but if an officer sees the phone in hand or the glow of the screen, a violation has been witnessed, even if the driver isn’t talking into the phone or pushing keys on the screen. The law applies to ‘premises open to the public,’ which includes places like store parking lots. Use at a stop sign or light is not permitted; you must pull over and park to take or make those "urgent" personal or business calls.

In-hand use of electronic devices for any purpose while driving is prohibited, including listening to music, GPS navigation and sending or receiving texts or emails. Limited exemptions exist for commercial truck drivers (federal electronic log requirements are coming to the trucking industry next year), bus drivers, and use of CB radios for logging and utility work. Several prior exemptions have been replaced with affirmative defenses, such as making a call for emergency help or using a ham radio.

The law overturns a 2015 case, Rabanales-Ramos, which held that police officers must have probable cause to believe that a person is either talking or texting on their phone (as opposed to making some other use) to make a traffic stop.

In Washington, Senate Bill 5289, also called the Driving Under the Influence of Electronics (“DUIE”) Act, goes into effect Jan. 1, 2019. That law defines “dangerously distracted” as engaging “in any activity not related to the actual operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with ... safe operation.” In addition to electronic devices, the law prohibits other distractions, such as grooming, eating, etc. Enforcement will be as a “secondary offense” when a driver is stopped for another infraction. The law prohibits holding any electronic device while driving. Electronic devices include cellphones, tablets, laptops, or electronic games.

The gradual implementation of stricter cellphone laws in Oregon and Washington show that public education is essential in reducing the dangers of operating a 2-ton hunk of metal at a speed of a mile a minute while distracted by a hand-held electronic device.

— Joe Charter is Jackson County’s justice of the peace.