By Scott Hammers • The Bulletin

S tarting Sunday, Oregon drivers will be expected to stay off the phone while behind the wheel.

As of Sunday, drivers will be able to use a cellphone while driving only when using a hands-free device that allows the driver to keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times. The change comes as the result of the passage of HB 2597 by the Oregon Legislature last summer.

Under the prior law, drivers were only barred from talking on the phone or texting while driving. The new law applies to all uses of a phone, including phone calls, text messages, viewing social media or the web, playing music or using navigation features.

The same law would apply to drivers using laptops, tablets or similar electronic devices but would not apply to navigation systems or other devices that are part of the vehicle or permanently affixed.

Drivers who are parked or pulled off on the side of the road will be permitted to use their phones, while those who do so while at a traffic light or while temporarily stopped for other reasons would be in violation of the law.

Citations for violating the new law start at $260 for a first-time offender.

Lt. Clint Burleigh with Bend Police said using a phone while driving has become one of the most common reasons Bend officers stop drivers, right behind speeding and weaving in traffic. He said he did not know how often traffic stops for phone usage resulted in a citation.

The new law is not sufficiently different from the old law to warrant a grace period, Burleigh said. He said the department is considering doing pre-announced “stings” during which officers make a point of looking for violations of the phone law, much as it does to enforce speed limits or noncompliance with the seat-belt law.

Burleigh said in driving around town in his personal vehicle, 30 to 40 percent of drivers he sees are using their phones. He said he sees fewer people using phones when driving a marked police vehicle.

Phone use has become a significant factor in crashes both minor and serious, Burleigh said. He recalled an instance from 2011, when a driver texting with a passenger in his vehicle struck and killed a 16-year-old boy who was riding a bike on Reed Market Road.

“That one case right there tells you how important it is to stay off your phone,” he said.

According to a 2017 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report, 10 percent of all traffic fatalities in 2015 could be traced to distracted driving. More than 1 in 8 distracted drivers involved in a fatal crash was using a cellphone or other mobile device at the time of the crash.

Drivers will be permitted to touch their phones to activate or deactivate a function of the phone — such as answering or hanging up a call, provided the call itself is conducted hands-free.

The new law is a potential problem for those who rely on phone-based navigation systems for work, such as delivery drivers.

Heather Parker, manager of Donner Flower Shop in Bend, said drivers make regular use of Google Maps and other navigation programs when delivering flowers across the region. She said drivers may have to program their routes in to their phones before pushing off and rely on audible instructions to find their destination.

Finding addresses in Central Oregon without electronic help is difficult, Parker said.

“There’s a new subdivision every week, and sometimes, they’re not even on Google Maps,” she said.

A provision in the earlier law that allowed for drivers to use cellphones in the course of their work will no longer apply. Under the new law, only law enforcement officers and emergency responders, utility workers, school bus drivers and those working on logging operations will be able to use a phone while driving for work.

Drivers summoning medical help when no one else is available to do so are also exempted from the law.

Burleigh said the law has been a bit slow to catch up with how phones have changed over the years, recalling the bulky early cellphone he used in the 1990s as a volunteer firefighter. The emergence of texting and the more recent development of phones with full internet connectivity have created new distractions for drivers, he said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0387,