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Holding a phone while driving means big fines starting Oct. 1

A new Oregon law bans all cell phone use while driving and could land repeat offenders in jail.

By Jade McDowell

EO Media Group

Published on September 26, 2017 4:57PM

Jonathan Newkirk was killed June 25, 2011, in what police suspect was a distracted driving crash on Umatilla River Road near Hermiston.

Contributed photo/Hermiston Police Department

Jonathan Newkirk was killed June 25, 2011, in what police suspect was a distracted driving crash on Umatilla River Road near Hermiston.

Answering a text could cost you a pretty penny after Oregon’s new distracted driving law takes effect on Oct. 1.

The more important thing, Oregon State Police emphasize, is it could cost you your life.

That’s why starting in October, using a handheld electronic device while driving will cost you $260 to $1,000 for your first offense, $435 to $2,000 for your second and up to six months in jail for your third.

“I think the message is very clear that the state takes distracted driving seriously,” OSP Sgt. Michael Berland said.

Previous distracted driving laws in Oregon only covered texting and talking on the phone. Since those laws were put in place, however, drivers have come up with an increasingly long list of reasons to take their eyes off the road. They send photos of the scenery via Snapchat, search Google for nearby restaurants, scroll through a playlist for their favorite song, send work emails or post updates to Facebook.

Berland said one incident that stands out in his mind was a rollover crash he responded to a few years ago where the female driver was killed.

“We found her iPhone and she was in the middle of making a grocery list,” he said.

Instead of spelling out every type of use, the legislature took a more comprehensive approach this year by passing a bill banning all use of mobile electronic devices while driving. Just holding a phone in your hand while driving is a violation, even if you’re not actively using it when an officer spots you. You can use it if you’re legally parked on the side of the road, but not while stopped at a red light or stuck in a traffic jam.

More than 3,100 people die every year in cellphone-related crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control. They leave behind thousands more loved ones devastated by the news of their death.

“One of the worst parts of my job is knocking on someone’s door and giving them the worst news of their life,” Berland said.

Most people wouldn’t drive down Interstate 84 with their eyes closed just because their friend dared them to, but if they answer a text from that same friend while driving, it creates a similar effect. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, a person takes their eyes off the road for an average of 4.5 seconds while reading a text. At 55 miles per hour, that’s the equivalent of driving the length of a football field blindfolded. If the road curves unexpectedly, a car in front hits the brakes or a deer runs onto the road, that “blindfold” can be disastrous.

“Nobody intends on crashing,” Berland said. “Nobody intends on taking that call and then running a red light or rear-ending someone or running over a child.”

It happens, though. Last year Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston got a visit from one of his sergeants, informing him that his great-niece Alexxyss Therwhanger had been killed in a car crash outside of Pilot Rock. She had been using her phone throughout the trip. Edmiston then had to inform his sister and her husband, who helped raise Alexxyss, of her death.

Edmiston has seen other distracted driving deaths in Hermiston. In 2011, Jonathan Newkirk died in a head-on crash after crossing the center line in front of Hermiston’s Recycled Water Treatment Plant on North First Place. His cellphone indicated he had been placing a call when he crashed.

Previously, using a phone while driving was a Class C violation, with a presumptive fine of $160. Presumptive fines are the standard amount charged for a certain violation, while the court can choose to impose a higher amount. All fines are automatically doubled in a school zone or construction zone.

Under the law that takes effect Sunday, a first-time offender who did not cause a crash would face a Class B violation, with a presumptive fine of $260 but a maximum fine of $1,000. Those first-time offenders could have their fine suspended if they complete a course of safety classes within four months, but the violation will stay on their record.

Second-time offenders face a Class A traffic violation, on par with driving more than 30 miles per hour over the speed limit and carrying a presumptive fine of $435 but a maximum of $2,000. Any additional violations become a Class B misdemeanor, resulting in a criminal record for the perpetrator and up to a $2,500 fine and six months in jail.

There are a few exemptions to the rules. A person can call 9-1-1 while driving during a emergency, if there is no one else in the vehicle who can make the call. Drivers can also use a single touch to activate a hands-free device. School bus drivers, commercial truck drivers, emergency responders and utility workers can use a two-way handheld radio in the scope of their employment.


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