Gov. Kate Brown has recently signed yet another revision to Oregon’s distracted driving cellphone law. Use of any mobile electronic device while driving can only be done “hands free.” Hands free means an attachment or built-in feature that gives a driver the ability to keep both hands on the steering wheel “at all times while using the device or requires only the minimal use of a finger, via a swipe or tap, to activate or deactivate a function of the device.” The new language was added by House Bill 4116.
An attachment or built-in feature will generally be a magnet or device holder mounted on a car dash that a phone is attached to, or a built-in dash display that includes entertainment and GPS functions. The new law makes clear that holding a phone or any other electronic device while driving is a traffic violation. A swipe or tap that allows you to take a call while remaining “heads up” with two hands on the wheel is permitted. Texting, which would require multiple taps, is never permitted while driving. It appears the intent of the revision is to allow “one touch” to turn functions off or on, but also to clarify that these actions must be momentary and allow for otherwise heads up driving. It is still illegal to hold a device while stopped at a traffic light or stop sign. To hold a device, the driver must be parked off the roadway or in a designated parking space.
The law leaves in place enhanced penalties for multiple convictions or if the offense contributes to a crash. A first offense results in a $265 fine or $440 if the use contributes to an accident. For a second offense after July 1, 2018, the presumptive fine is $440. A third offense after July 1, 2018 is a Class B misdemeanor and a court “shall” impose a $2,000 fine. The new law moves the period of counting offenses for enhanced penalties forward from October 1, 2017 to July 1 of this year. If a person has already had an enhanced penalty for offenses before July 1, 2018 resulting from more than one offense, or from contributing to an accident, they can request that the court re-determine the offense classification and any enhanced penalty.
This extension of time gives drivers additional time to adapt their driving behavior in light of these higher enhanced penalties. Medford police were giving drivers warnings of the new law after October 1, but the Sheriff’s Office did not delay enforcement. Another misconception is that a court must grant a request for diversion or traffic school on the first offense. The law says that “for a person’s first conviction ... the court may suspend the fine” on the condition that a person completes a distracted driving course. Diversion is discretionary under the statute, and the Jackson County Justice Court does not allow diversion.
Since some form of cellphone restriction while driving has been on the books for 10 years in Oregon, the Justice Court has determined that the time for leniency has passed. The deterrent effect from paying a $265 fine as opposed to a $25 class with no fine is obvious. I have had a woman crying in court while pleading guilty to using a cellphone while driving. She explained she knew she shouldn’t have been on the phone because her husband “had driven off the road and killed himself” while texting. It’s time to recognize that the continuous attention our devices demand is an addiction triggered by irresistible neurochemical brain impulses. Until social stigma is attached to device use while driving in the same way that drunk driving now is, distracted driving will continue to contribute to traffic fatalities.
April is the fifth annual distracted driving month in Oregon. A distracted-driver crash occurs every 2.5 hours in Oregon, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation. Cellphone use is highest among 16- to 24-year-olds, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Learn more about what you can do to promote safer roads at www.distraction.gov.
Joe Charter is Jackson County’s justice of the peace.