New Year Brings New Push Against Distracted Driving

A new law that came into effect in California this month is likely to be closely watched here in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere around the country. The wide-ranging legislation goes “further than most states in prohibiting the use of cellphones, banning drivers from even holding mobile devices while driving,” according to the New York Times.

The newspaper describes it as a legislative attempt to get ahead of the technology curve. “The law builds on earlier legislation that prevented drivers from talking and texting but did not prohibit them from streaming video, for instance, or using apps like Facebook and Twitter,” the paper reports. It notes that “late last month a family filed a lawsuit against Apple over a 2014 accident in which a driver using FaceTime crashed into the family’s car, killing their 5-year-old daughter.”

It may seem obvious that a law designed to prevent texting would also cover the use of Skype or FaceTime, but that is no excuse for legislators failing to tighten up the language of the relevant statutes. For example, here in Oregon the law governing distracted driving, ORS 811.507 (see link below), defines a “mobile communications device” as “a text messaging device or a wireless, two-way communications device designed to receive and transmit voice or text communication.” Would that definition cover the latest generation of the iPod Touch, a device that can’t make phone calls or send text messages but can surf the internet and make video connections? In a world where wi-fi networks are rapidly spreading around cities and towns this is no longer a theoretical question.

In the same vein, Washington State’s distracted driving law (RCW 46.61.667) specifically refers to “a person operating a moving motor vehicle while holding a wireless communications device to his or her ear.” Any sensible person would say that the spirit of this law clearly includes a ban on holding the phone in front of you to chat by video (or, for that matter, merely holding it in front of you and shouting into it) but a defendant’s attorney might well argue that, strictly speaking, the law allows doing so.

It is not enough to count on sympathetic judges applying common sense in situations like this, especially when a legislative fix like the one recently enacted in California is both simple and obvious. As a Portland attorney with experience in distracted driving cases in both Oregon and Washington I hope legislators on both sides of the Columbia River will find time to address these loopholes during this winter’s legislative sessions. As the Times notes, “federal data is scheduled to be released that shows that more than 3,400 people were killed in accidents that involved at least one distracted driver in 2015.” Add to that the fact that traffic deaths are now “at the highest rates in the last half-century” and it is clear that our elected representatives have a responsibility to act.


New York Times: Can a law stop distracted driving? California hopes to find out.

Washington DMV: Distracted Driving Can Kill

Oregon Revised Statutes 811.507: Operating a Motor Vehicle while using mobile communications device

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