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Talent police ramp up cellphone ticketing

Distracted driving citations — most for cellphone use — have jumped more than 400 percent in Talent over the last eight months compared to the same time in 2017-18.

City officers who are good at spotting cellphone-using drivers — along with a state grant that paid for patrol overtime — have boosted the numbers.

From the start of November 2018 through last week, the Talent Police Department had issued 254 citations and 15 warnings. Sixty citations and one warning were issued during the same period a year earlier.

“We’ve got one or two officers who really have an eye for it. It’s really been blatant. We see it around town, even when off duty,” said police Chief Tim Doney. Warnings are issued occasionally, but the officers are mostly writing tickets, he said.

Most citations are written for cellphone use, although occasionally tickets are given for GPS device use, Doney said. On his way into work Monday, he issued a warning to a driver using a cellphone.

Oregon law prohibits the use of cellphones and other electronic devices while driving. The law allows hands-free devices to be used by drivers 18 or older. A single swipe or touch to activate or deactivate a device is allowed. A first offense brings a fine up to $1,000. A second offense, or first if it contributes to a crash, can result in a $2,000 fine. A third violation is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,500 and up to six months in jail.

A person was recently charged by a Talent officer with a Class B misdemeanor for a third distracted driving offense in less than 10 years.

“It’s one of those violations we’re seeing all the time. Distracted driving isn’t that far off from driving under the influence,” said Doney. “Cellphones really garner a lot of attention. You have to pay attention to them with the screen and manipulate things with your fingers. It really takes your attention away.”

The Oregon Legislature created tougher laws in 2017 and 2018, which brought federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration grant money to the Oregon Department of Transportation distracted driving program to help with enforcement. Police agencies had to submit grant applications to receive funds — $600,000 was available for use in the year that ends Sept. 30. Grant applications are now being accepted for the next cycle.

“Since Oregon was awarded distracted driving money, we have been able to ramp up on efforts,” said Kelly Kapri, program manager. “Everyone reports to us an increase in citations written, at a minimum.”

In Jackson County, the Sheriff’s Office got $4,000, Medford police got $7,000, Ashland police got $1,500, and Talent was awarded $2,000. Klamath County Sheriff’s Office was awarded $5,000. Oregon State Police received $100,000 for statewide distracted driving enforcement.

“They are doing a lot of enforcement. They are writing a lot of citations,” Kapri said of the statewide effort. Because the program is in its first year, it is too early to have data available, she said.

In some areas, first-time offenders are offered the option of taking a distracted driving course instead of paying a fine. Jackson County Justice Court, which handles citations from Talent, does not offer a traffic school for using a mobile electronic device or cellphone while driving.

“It’s a way of trying to educate drivers to change behaviors,” Kapri said about the schools.

There are some exceptions to the law. Making a call to summon medical help is allowed if no one else is available. Exceptions were also written for emergency services providers and certain uses of radios and log-in devices by commercial drivers.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.