Over the years public awareness of the seriousness of distracted driving has only grown. In the same vein, our legal system’s efforts to address the problem have matured, reflecting both changes in communications technology and a better understanding of distracted driving as a problem.
One result, as The Oregonian reports, are new changes to Oregon’s distracted driving laws, set to come into effect on October 1. At the core of the new rules are “a stricter ban on cellphone use while driving and higher fines which escalate for repeat offenders.”
As I noted back in May when HB 2597, as the law is known, was still making its way through the legislature, there are two key elements to this law: one involving definitions and the other focusing on penalties.
The definitions section is the most important. Oregon’s original distracted driving law, passed in 2009 and taking effect the following year, focused on cellphones. At the time, this made sense. Only eight years later, however, we live in a very different technological world. That is why the law taking effect next week “applies to mobile electronic devices of all stripes, including cellphones, tablets laptops and GPS units,” according to The Oregonian. Reflecting the era in which it was written, the original legislation focused on telephone calls and texting. With time that created huge loopholes. Right now it is, technically speaking, illegal to hold your phone to make a phone call while driving, but it is perfectly legal to hold it for the purpose of searching movie listings on Google, looking at a friend’s Instagram account or even making a Skype videocall.
As of Sunday that will not be the case: anything that requires sustained use of one hand will be against the law. Think of the distinction this way: reaching over to adjust the volume on your radio while driving remains perfectly legal, as does hitting the ‘Navigate’ button on your GPS. Programming a new address into the GPS by hand will not be allowed. It is also important to understand that the broader definition of “mobile electronic devices” now includes attention-grabbing gadgets that are built into your car – not just ones you carry in a pocket.
The other key element of the new law is the changes it makes to distracted driving penalties. Since distracted driving first became illegal in Oregon fines have increased several times, but have remained relatively low. Under current law “the presumptive fine was $160, with no escalation for repeat offenders,” according to the newspaper. Under the new rules, “a first offense comes with a presumptive fine of $260. A second offense, or a first offense that contributes to a crash, comes with a presumptive fine of $435, while a third violation within 10 years could be a misdemeanor with six months of jail time and a fine of up to $2500.” The paper quite rightly quotes a spokesman for the Oregon State Police saying: “It’s really speaking clearly on how seriously they take distracted driving.”
As a Portland attorney who has often represented people injured by distracted drivers I’m happy to see the state moving to close a key loophole in existing law, and toughen the associated penalties. Car crashes are probably never going to disappear entirely, indeed, tens of thousands of people still die on America’s roads and highways every year. But with advances in both technology and education we can do much to lower that number. It is a task that will probably never be finished, but needs to continue nonetheless.