Legislators in Salem hope to close what has emerged as a significant loophole in Oregon’s year-and-a-half-old distracted driving law. As almost everyone knows by now, talking on a cellphone while behind the wheel is illegal in Oregon unless one is using a hands-free device.
As The Oregonian details, however, many judges are taking a broader view of one particular provision of the 2009 law than its authors intended. The Oregon distracted driving law contains an exception “allowing drivers to go on talking on their handheld cellphone – as long as they are driving for work and ‘acting in the scope’ of their employment,” the paper notes.
The legislators who wrote the law tell The Oregonian their idea was “to make exceptions for police, firefighters and others who truly need to make calls on the move.” As it turns out, however, courts have given that phrase a much wider interpretation. In many places, its effect has been to give a free pass to anyone who simply tells the judge they were making a work-related call. As a consequence, some police officers tell the paper they have stopped even issuing distracted driving citations to anyone who claims when pulled over to have been on the phone for work.
HB 3186, which passed the House by a better than 2-to-1 margin last week, seeks to close the loophole, by making it clear that the talking-while-driving exception is limited public safety and emergency personnel, tow truck drivers, utility crews and “persons engaged in agricultural operations.” If the measure makes it all the way to the governor’s desk it will be a welcome clarification of an essential law.
As a Portland distracted driving attorney my belief has always been that the focus of the law should be on the victims of distracted driving. Oregon’s distracted driving law was always designed to hold those who insist on behaving dangerously to account. Closing loopholes through which dangerous drivers may be slipping is to be welcomed.