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Eyes on the road, hands on the wheel

Nationally, the number of fatal car wrecks is on the rise, and that trend also is true in Oregon. No one knows for sure the reasons for the increase, but everyone has a pretty good guess: It's because we're distracted as never before when we buckle ourselves into the driver's seat.

So the timing seems just right for Oregon's new distracted-driving law, which went into effect on Sunday.

Under the new law, it's 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.

The new law, House Bill 2597, also closes loopholes in the current law by addressing all types of electronic devices, not just cellular phones.

Rep. Andy Olson of Albany was the chief sponsor of the legislation. Olson, a former Oregon State Police officer, knows firsthand about the damage caused by distracted drivers — damage that simply doesn't have to happen if drivers stay focused on their first responsibility.

"Nationally, one in four vehicle accidents involve distracted driving," Olson said last week in a news story about the new law. "It's a major concern."

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

So, for example, you can still use your smartphone as a navigation device, but be sure to type in the address before you start your vehicle. While you're on the road, it's strictly hands-off.

It has been illegal to text or use a cellphone without a hands-free device while driving in Oregon since 2009. (Drivers under the age of 18 cannot use any cellular device while driving, even if it is hands-free.) The new law adds some teeth to all that.

Which is why area law-enforcement officers say they aren't interested in giving drivers the benefit of a grace period in enforcing the law: They're ready to write tickets when they catch that tell-tale glow emanating from inside your vehicle.

Linn County Sheriff Bruce Riley likely was speaking for many mid-valley law officers when he said: "We are done warning folks. Done educating folks about this. We are going to enforce this law."

First-time offenders are looking at a fine of $160. Why, that might cover a month or two of data charges on your smartphone, and that's the point: The fine is designed to catch your attention and to leave a bit of a mark on your pocketbook.

A third offense committed within a 10-year span could end up costing you $2,500 and could include up to six months in jail.

The idea is to make people think twice about driving with one eye on the road and one eye on their smartphones. That driving technique is a recipe for disaster. It's best just to set the device aside while you're driving; in fact, some phones now have "do not disturb while driving" features that drivers may want to consider activating.

Just a second or two of inattentive driving can be enough to trigger a wreck: Lt. Brad Liles of the Albany Police Department said distracted driving is a common culprit in rear-end accidents. "It's especially noticeable at stoplights, when they don't see brake lights for a second or two," he said.

It's not as if we don't have enough distractions while driving even without our devices: Just last week, for example, news stories reported about new electronic billboards that will be able to send personalized messages as vehicles approach them. We are not convinced that this constitutes a major advance for civilization.

But may we suggest a message for those new billboards? How about this: "Eyes on the road, partner. Hands on the wheel."