New Technologies, New Legislation and Oregon Distracted Driving

With the Oregon Senate taking up HB 2597, a bill that would significantly increase fines for distracted driving, this is a good moment to look at both the state of the law here in Oregon and at a new technology-driven effort to combat the problem.

As The Oregonian reports, the state House passed HB 2597 early this month. According to the newspaper’s legislative tracking site the Senate held its first hearings last week and the Senate Judiciary Committee has a work session on the measure scheduled this Tuesday (May 30). If enacted, the legislation would make major – and much needed – alterations to Oregon’s existing distracted driving law.

Under current law, as laid out in ORS 811.507, distracted driving is a Class C traffic violation, punishable by a fine of up to $500 (though in practice assessed fines are often much lower – usually around $160). According to The Oregonian “under HB 2597, Oregon drivers could be fined up to $2000 for using a ‘mobile electronic device’ while on the roads. Fines for a first offense could total $1000 and be erased if drivers take a state-approved distracted driving avoidance class at their own expense. Subsequent offenses, or a first offense that causes a traffic collision, would result in higher fines that could not be waived.”

The bill would also tighten existing law by substituting the more comprehensive term “mobile electronic device” for the word telephone and making clear that any use of such a device is prohibited, not just talking and texting. The narrow language of the original law has, in many instances, been overtaken by technology. As the newspaper notes, this led to a 2015 Oregon appeals court ruling that severely restricted existing law by confining it to voice communications and texting. In theory a driver could legally stream video on an iPad or play an app-based game while behind the wheel. The Oregonian quotes one lawmaker noting that “looking at emails while driving is not citable under current law.” HB 2597 seeks to close this and similar loopholes. This follows a similar effort in California, about which I wrote in January.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that other efforts are underway to use technology to make it easier to catch people violating distracted driving laws. The paper recently reported on efforts to create what it called a “breathalyzer for distracted driving.” A device currently in the prototype phase “is designed to analyze a smartphone to determine whether its user had been tapping the keyboard or swiping at its screen. The device would not be able to read the messages or other content.” The paper reports that the company manufacturing the machine believes it could be fully operable in six to nine months. Meanwhile, a bill is currently under consideration in the New York legislature to allow its use by police there.

As The Oregonian notes, “nationwide, distracted drivers account for one in ten traffic fatalities and 18 percent of traffic injuries.” As a Portland distracted driving attorney I have long helped those injured by irresponsible drivers obtain justice through our courts. Giving law enforcement the tools they need, and tightening the law so that it keeps pace with technology, are both common sense approaches to a problem that keeps growing despite our best efforts to end it.

 

Washington Post: A roadside test for texting and driving?

The Oregonian: Use your phone while driving? Bigger fines could be coming

The Oregonian: Status page for HB 2597