If you’ve been cited in Deschutes County recently for driving while fiddling with your phone, there’s a good chance you’ve met William Duran, a senior trooper with the Oregon State Police Patrol Services Division. During October, according to the state’s criminal database, Duran issued at least 27 citations for driving while using a mobile electronic device. The entire Bend police department, by way of comparison, issued 33 citations and a handful of warnings in October.
My point here isn’t to suggest that Bend officers are doing too little, but, rather, to highlight the determination with which Duran pursues electronic-device infractions. Oregonians who’ve wondered — while watching people drive with one eye on the road and the other on Facebook — whether anyone out there is doing anything about the problem have an answer.
Duran, a 19-year state police veteran, attributes his results partly to his work ethic. He says Oregonians pay him to enforce the law and enhance safety on and near major routes like U.S. Highways 97 and 20. The best way to give Oregonians value is to respond to those who violate the law, whether by speeding, failing to buckle up or using hand-held phones. This approach makes good sense, as the mere presence of Duran’s patrol car on the road does little to change behavior. It’s an unmarked Dodge.
Meanwhile, Duran takes the illegal use of electronic devices very seriously.
“People have completely lost track of the ability to be safe, not only for themselves, but for others,” he said Tuesday. Though statistics are hard to come by, he says he trusts that by focusing on the problem he can make a difference.
There is, perhaps, no better way to grasp the power of cellphone distraction than to ride along with Duran, as I did Tuesday, and to stop in traffic beside a teen driver holding a phone, her thumbs a blur. The 17-year-old remained oblivious to the fact that a state trooper was staring through her passenger window (the car’s unmarked, but really!). And when traffic began to move, she initially seemed unaware of the flashing lights that appeared in her mirror.
She explained that she was using her phone to call her father, which might have been plausible if his phone number contained scores of digits. She left with a $260 ticket, the fine for a first-time offense.
The explanations people provide for illegal phone use are frequently tortured, and sometimes even funny. They’re usually captured in the form of notes on each citation.
There’s the guy Duran cited on Oct. 2 after seeing him holding a smartphone to his ear. When Duran approached the vehicle, the driver had a Bluetooth device in his right ear and claimed he was switching between the two when he was spotted.
There’s the guy Duran cited Oct. 20 who blamed his wife, claiming that she was worried that he had not responded.
There’s the man Duran cited Oct. 26 who claimed he didn’t know using his cellphone while driving was illegal.
And then there’s the woman Duran cited on Oct. 20 who explained plausibly she’d been on the phone with the butcher to find out where to take the sheep in her horse trailer, “and there you were.”
The best excuse Duran could remember Tuesday involved a man who denied holding a phone to his ear at all. It was really a wallet, he said, with which he liked to scratch himself. Apparently, fingernails are overrated.
My ride-along with Duran began with a call to the state police a week earlier. In scanning Deschutes County information on the state’s criminal database, I noticed that Duran had issued a comparatively large number of citations for driving while using a mobile electronic device. I wanted to talk to the trooper who responded with such determination to a behavior that irritates — and endangers — so many people on the road.
What I found was not a single-minded Ahab in humorless pursuit of cellphone scofflaws. Duran just happens to take the offense seriously and, he says, is less inclined to exhibit the sort of leniency he might for other offenses. Some drivers on Tuesday escaped with warnings for some things, including speed. But not for illegal phone use. People, he says, know better.
While I was scanning the criminal database last week, I also noticed a name that underscores how serious this issue is: Erik Conn.
On Oct. 27, Conn was accused by the Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office of driving with a revoked license. The revocation resulted from Conn’s conviction for criminally negligent homicide in the 2011 death of 16-year-old Forrest Cepeda. In July of that year, the truck Conn was driving veered from Reed Market Road in Bend and killed Cepeda, who was riding a bike.
According to a search warrant, Conn was texting with two people around the time of the crash, one of whom was sitting right next to him.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.