Despite publicity campaigns and enforcement blitzes, police and state transportation officials say cellphone use while driving remains a significant issue in Bend, where last week police officers stationed at two busy intersections cited 46 people over the course of three hours for talking and texting.
Eight Bend Police officers were stationed at NW Franklin at NE First Street and at the intersection of SE Ninth Street and Wilson Avenue on Sept. 1.
Two officers — one at each intersection — stood watch in plainclothes, on the lookout for people talking or texting, with three officers at each intersection waiting in patrol cars, according to Bend Police Lt. Clint Burleigh.
Though talking on a cellphone via a hands-free device is legal in Oregon, it has been illegal since 2012 to otherwise use a cellphone while driving under state law. The law, introduced in 2010, initially allowed drivers to use cellphones for work. Drivers under the age of 18 can’t use a cellphone at all.
Because they demand visual attention, texting and checking email have proven even more dangerous on the road.
In 2012, a La Pine man, Erik Conn, was sentenced to 28 months in prison for criminally negligent homicide after he struck and killed a teenager while texting and driving on Reed Market Road in Bend, according to Bulletin archives. Conn was ordered to complete a community education class about cellphone use, was to have limited access to a cellphone and his license was revoked permanently.
“We were having issues, (although) we’ve really educated people over the last few years in regards to distracted driving,” Burleigh said in an interview Friday.
Statewide, while the Oregon Department of Transportation has logged a slight increase since 2009 in the number of crashes involving a driver using a cellphone, state transportation officials say those numbers are underreported.
According to ODOT, there were two fatal crashes involving a driver using a cellphone since 2009 recorded in Deschutes County — and none recorded in Jefferson or Crook counties. The total number of crashes in 2013 — the most recent year data are available — in Deschutes County was just nine.
“The number in reality is much higher,” said Shelley Snow, a spokeswoman for ODOT. “All you’ve got to do is drive down the road, and every other person you see is talking or texting while driving,” Snow added.
Often, Burleigh said, after an accident, drivers tend to evade officers’ questions about whether they were using a cellphone at the time of the crash.
“A lot of people don’t tell us they were on the phone,” Burleigh said. In those situations, without probable cause to believe cellphone use was involved, a driver may be instead cited for lesser violations, such as following too closely. He later continued: “People don’t want to tell us they’re on a cellphone. There’s a stigma to it.”
And though texting while driving may be a faux pas, the compulsion to check the ubiquitous mobile devices is clearly going strong.
In April, ODOT and Bend Police conducted what they called a “high-visibility” enforcement period. Over the course of four days, 72 people were cited for unlawful use of a mobile device, according to police.
The enforcement period was followed by telephone surveys inquiring about distracted driving behaviors and attitudes, according to Kelly Kapri, program manager for the Safety & Courtesy Program, a division of the state’s transportation safety division.
The final results are due Friday, but a draft of the report released to The Bulletin indicates that about 44 percent of respondents in Bend surveyed after the enforcement period and awareness campaign still used a cellphone to take or make calls — whether hands-free or handheld — while driving.
About 53 percent of respondents also said they had not seen or heard distracted driving messages or police efforts during the month of April. And more than half of respondents said they were either somewhat or very unlikely to be ticketed for texting while driving in Bend.
Burleigh said the police department will continue its awareness efforts.
“Cellphones are prevalent everywhere,” Burleigh said. “They are part of society. They are not going away, nor should they … (but) don’t text while you drive, don’t check email; use a hands-free device, because we don’t want anybody to get hurt.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0376,