Oregon State Police Lt. Mark Duncan takes down information from a driver who was pulled over for using a cell phone while driving. Duncan's state police troopers spearheaded a one-day distracted driving effort last week. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

ONTARIO – Driving into Ontario last week, Oregon State Police Lt. Mark Duncan was confident his search for a motorist violating Oregon’s cell phone law was going to be a short one.

He was right.

Less than five minutes after pulling into town in his black patrol car Duncan spotted a woman behind the wheel of a purple van driving on Southeast 5th Avenue talking on her cell phone.

Duncan quickly wheeled his patrol car around and pulled in behind the van.

He turned on his emergency lights.

The car did not stop.

After a minute, he hit his siren. The van kept going.

Finally, after several more minutes, the van pulled to the side of the road.

The woman behind the wheel earned at ticket that – as a first offense – could cost her up to $260. Oregon’s distracted driving law – first approved by lawmakers in 2017 and then updated in 2018 – makes it illegal to drive while holding or using an electronic device.

Electronic devices covered under the law include cell phones, GPS devices and laptops.

The law specifies a sliding scale of fines.

For example, for a first offense that does not contribute to a crash, the state can levy a fine up to $1,000.

A second violation – or a first offense that causes a crash – can cost a violator up to $2,000.

A third offense can end with a jail sentence – up to 10 years.

April 4 Duncan led a county-wide effort to crackdown on distracted driving. His troopers issued 38 citations, including warnings for distracted driving.

For Duncan, the fast discovery of a cell phone law violation wasn’t a shock. Duncan said based on his training and experience the only surprise was it took five minutes to find a violator. Usually, he said, it’s quicker than that.

“It is just so common,” said Duncan.

The state Transportation Department has declared April as Distracted Driving Month and as part of that effort local police are working two separate roadway stings. The first one – last Thursday and spearheaded by the OSP –included the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, the Nyssa and Ontario Police Departments.

The next distracted driving dragnet is set for this Thursday and will be led by the sheriff’s office. Local police use state and federal grants to pay for overtime for police that work the stings.

“We try to do this at least two times a year,” said Duncan. Recalling specific incidents that illustrates the dangers of distracted driving can be a challenge for Duncan. That’s because there are so many, he said.

Distracted driving – especially cell phone use – produces many crashes every year, said Duncan.

“And the minute you relax, compliance seems to decline,” said Duncan.

In 2017, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 3,000 people died in the U.S. because of crashes linked to distracted driving.

A report on distracted driving crafted by Southern Oregon University for the Transportation Department in 2016 showed nine Americans are killed every day in car crashes that involve distracted driving.

Cell phone use, a component of distracted driving, can also be deadly on the road.

Transportation Department statistics show that between 2013 and 2017, there were 1,089 crashes – including 20 deaths and more than 1,000 people injured - involving drivers using a cell phone in Oregon.

“Distracted driving is right up there with impaired driving in our fatalities,” said Duncan.

Duncan was careful to point out last week that the aim of the sting was to combat all types of distracted driving. However, cell phone use was clearly the most obvious – and easily detectable.

At one point, Duncan pulled his patrol car up to a stop light on East Idaho Avenue. Right next to his car, in plain view, a woman sat on her cell phone waiting for the light to turn green. Duncan promptly pulled her over and issued a citation.

“Proactive enforcement is the only way to combat distracted driving. We want to stop the wreck before it happens,” said Duncan.

Duncan said he must have “clear and convincing evidence” before he pulls someone over for distracted driving but that wasn’t a major challenge last week. People not wearing their seatbelts or with a cell phone at that ear was a common sight.

Distracted driving and cell phone use hits home for Duncan. He has responded to numerous crashes – some of them fatal – where a cell phone was probably the cause. Duncan said once he responded to a crash and arrived to find the driver dead, holding a cell phone.

“And the person on the other end of the line was going ‘hello, hello?’” said Duncan.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: pat@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.

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