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Oregon cell phone law tough to enforce

January 27, 2019

A law passed in 2017 was supposed to get tougher on drivers distracted by cell phones and other electronic devices. More than a year later, many police officers say the law has been tough to enforce.

Public records requests for the number of distracted driving citations under the new law showed many agencies have been inclined to issue warnings.

Despite tougher penalties in place, Oregon State Police Lt. Steve Mitchell of the OSP office in Roseburg said enforcing the law can pose a challenge for troopers.

“If you see a trooper coming up behind you and you have it to your ear, you’re going to put it down, before the trooper would pass you, so it’s hard for us to enforce it in that respect,” Mitchell said.

Myrtle Creek Police Chief Don Brown, who was an Oregon State Police trooper before his current job, agreed it’s tough to enforce, but he feels it’s making an impact.

“I believe it to be an excellent law. More accidents and fatalities are cause by distracted drivers than DUIIs now,” Brown said. “The problem the officers have is that they’ve enhanced the fines so the guys are reluctant to write a second or third cite for sure because of the expense to people, so we definitely give more warnings than citations.”

Brown says Myrtle Creek officers have not seen a lot of violations and estimates they wrote 10 or less citations for the entire year of 2018. He added that his officers gave several warnings, although the department doesn’t keep track of warnings.

Since 2009, Oregon law banned texting, but allowed drivers to make calls using hands-free devices. In 2017, legislators set out to close an apparent loophole that appeared to allow drivers to check Facebook, surf the Internet and use navigational devices while driving.

The new Distracted Driving Law made it illegal to hold or use any electronic devices while driving, including cell phones, tablets, GPS or laptops.

For first-time offenders not involving a crash, fines can range as high as $1,000. For first offense involving a crash or second offenses, fines can be as high as $2,000. As of July 1, 2018, three offenses in 10 years can result in a maximum fine of $2,500 and six months in jail.

The court can expunge the first offense if the offender goes through a diversion class.

But a lot of other actions could also be considered distracted driving.

“Like tuning your radio, we’ve even seen people shaving as they go down the road,” Mitchell said. “But a large majority of our contacts are because people are on their cell phone.”

OSP troopers have some unmarked vehicles, and Mitchell says those officers have a higher success rate of finding people that are using their phones while driving.

In 2018, the first full year of the law, troopers stopped 62 people in Douglas County for distracted driving, Mitchell said. He said the OSP does not categorize the stops for cell-phone usage. It’s just listed as a driving distraction.

“Five of those were cited and 57 were given warnings,” Mitchell said.

“The only thing that changed with the new law is that subsequent convictions could lead to more severe penalties,” Mitchell said. “So we’re not really enforcing it any differently, but really what changed was the consequences of multiple convictions within a specified period of time.”

Sutherlin City Police officers only wrote three citations and issued six warnings in 2018. Captain Kurt Sorenson said it is hard law to enforce unless someone is just holding the phone to their ear and not paying attention to the police presence.

“Our officers have the discretion to either issue a citation or a warning if they see someone using their cell phone and driving,” Sorenson said. “A lot of times, I suspect someone is texting and driving, but I don’t see the phone, I just see them looking in their lap so that’s a hard one, and if they commit some kind of violation, I’ll pull them over and by then their phone is in the console turned of and they’re going to tell me they weren’t texting.”

Statewide, police stopped 4,070 vehicles for distracted driving in 2018. Mitchell said 1,767 citations were issued and troopers issued 2,303 warnings. Most of those stops, he said, were for cell phone usage.

Oregon Department of Transportation statistics show that from 2013-2017, there were 23 property damage crashes in Douglas County, that were blamed on using a cell phone at the time of the crash.

Mitchell believes it’s much higher than that since most of the time, people don’t admit that they were using their phone when they crashed.

“If a person is on the phone texting or holding their phone up to their ear (when they crash), more times than not, they not going to tell us they were on their cell phone,” Mitchell said. “We go by what people tell us, unless it’s blatantly obvious to us, so that data is skewed in my opinion, so I think that shows a lot less than what really occurs.”

A public records request sent on Jan. 8 asking for the number of cell phone citations from the Roseburg Police Department was not returned in time for publication.

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