By Pat Caldwell
VALE — No one needs to tell Oregon State Police Lt. Mark Duncan how dangerous it is to use a cell phone on the road.
Duncan, the commander of the Oregon State Police station in Ontario, said he’s seen numerous serious and deadly crashes because of distracted driving and cell phone use. And the number of incidents involving distracted driving continues to climb.
“It is alarmingly high even locally,” Duncan said. “Our number of fatality crashes has increased and I have investigated several that were from distracted driving.”
One case still stands out with Duncan. In October 2013 a car driven by a Parma man slammed into the back of a farm truck.
The Parma man and his wife died in the crash and their young daughter injured.
Duncan said the accident was caused by cell phone use.
“I pulled the phone out of his hand,” said Duncan.
A new Oregon law, though, may help clamp down on fatal crashes triggered by cell phone use. The new law will go into effect Oct. 1. The law makes it illegal to drive while holding or using an electronic device such as a cell phone, tablet, GPS or a laptop.
The law consists of tiered enforcement. For the first offense – if no crash is involved – the minimum fine is $130 while the maximum is $1,000.
A second offense – or a first offense if it triggered a crash – will fetch a minimum fine of $220 and a maximum levy of $2,500.
A third offense – if it occurs within a 10-year time frame – means a minimum fine of $2,000 and a maximum penalty of $2,500 and up to six months in jail.
On Jan. 1, Oregon judges will have the option to waive the fine for a first-time offense if the driver attends a distracted driving avoidance course.
However there are eight exceptions to the law. For example, hands-free or built-in devices are allowed if the driver 18 or older and activates a device with a swipe or a single touch. Other permitted uses of electronic devices behind the wheel include:
While providing or summoning medical help and no one else is available to make the call.
When parked safely.
Truck or bus drivers are allowed to use an electronic device while driving if they are following the federal rules for commercial license holders.
Use of a two-way radio is permitted for CB users, school bus drivers and utility truck drivers while in the scope of their employment.
Ambulance or emergency vehicle operators while on duty.
Police, fire, emergency medical service providers while on duty.
HAM radio operators, 18 and older.
Duncan said he supports the new law.
“We have to have tighter standards to hold people accountable,” said Duncan.
Malheur County Undersheriff Travis Johnson agreed.
“I think it is a real problem. In the long run, what does it hurt to wait five or ten minutes or to just pull over?” said Johnson.
Statistics tell the toll of distracted driving.
A 2016 report by the American Automobile Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety showed more than two in three drivers reported talking on a cell phone while driving within a 30-day period.
In Oregon from 2011 to 2015 there were more than 900 crashes, 14 deaths and 1,330 injuries related to drivers using cell phones, according to the state Transportation Department.
Duncan said the new law wouldn’t affect how his troopers combat distracted driving.
“If we see them on their device we will take appropriate action,” said Duncan.
Nyssa Police Department Lt. Don Ballou said finding a way to cut down on distracted driving is a priority not only for his department but also for law enforcement agencies across the county.
One method often used to combat distracted driving, said Ballou, is saturation patrols geared toward cell phone use behind the wheel.
“For us it is a problem. Obviously anything that takes your eyes off the road will be an issue. The more you are on your phone the better chance you will wreck and take lives,” said Ballou.
Johnson said the saturation patrols are one method to cut down on distracted driving but he said his office hasn’t formulated a plan to enforce the new law.
Duncan said crashes caused by cell phone use and distracted driving stick with his troopers long after an incident.
“Just about all of us recall the last time we saw someone die because they were talking on their phone,” said Duncan.
Have a news tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or (541) 473-3377
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