Bill would impose higher fines on drivers using cellphones

Lauren Gambino / The Associated Press /

Published Feb 13, 2013 at 04:00AM

SALEM — The maximum fine for motorists caught talking on their cellphones or texting while driving would increase from $250 to $1,000 under a bill that is being considered by the Oregon Legislature, a move intended to make distracted driving a more serious crime.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved the bill proposed by Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, with two members dissenting.

Albany police Officer Robert Hayes, speaking for the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police, said there are simply not enough officers to always enforce the law. He told the committee that he often passes drivers on their cellphones as he is responding to a more pressing call.

“If there is no fear of getting a citation, there is no fear of committing the violation,” Hayes said.

The current law that went into effect in January 2010 prohibits motorists from texting or talking on their cellphones while driving. Drivers are permitted to use hands-free accessories to talk on the phone, but texting is illegal in any circumstance.

Courtney said he hopes to change the way Oregonians think about texting and talking on the phone while driving.

“If it was my way, we would treat distracted driving the same way we treat drinking and driving in this state,” Courtney told the Associated Press. “And I think one day we will.”

Sen. Betsy Close, R-Albany, who voted against the bill, said she’s worried the fines are too steep — considering many of the violators are young people.

“My concern is that the maximum fine is high, and that we have a law on the books already,” she said.

Between 2010, when the law went into effect, and 2012, state troopers issued a total of 4,586 citations and 6,752 warnings, according to police statistics. In 2012, state police issued 2,151 citations, more than twice as many as in 2010 when police issued 1,012 citations.

In 2011, the Legislature closed a loophole that allowed drivers to talk on hand-held cellphones for work-related purposes. Now, the exemption is limited to a handful of professionals.

Sen. Jeff Kruse, a Roseburg Republican who opposed the measure, said he would prefer if the bill applied to all forms of distracted driving, including eating or putting on makeup.

“If we’re going to pass a bill like this, I’d rather it be more all-encompassing than just focusing on the cellphone,” he said.

In the first six months of 2012 there were 155 reported crashes, one of which was fatal, caused by distracted drivers on their cellphones, according to the most recent statistics available from the Oregon Department of Transportation. In 2011, there were 202 reported crashes, four of them fatal, for the entire year.

The bill would allot approximately $123,000 to the Oregon Department of Transportation to put up signs notifying drivers that texting and talking on the phone are illegal.

Rep. Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie, introduced a similar bill in the House that would set the maximum fine even higher, at $2,000.

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