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State cell phone driving law loophole closing

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Two years after a statewide ban on the use of a cell phone while driving, a legislative revision slated to take effect Jan. 1 would close a loophole making use of hand-held mobile devices when driving permissible if necessary for work.

Following the Legislature's passage of Oregon's hands-free law in 2009, offenders faced a $142 violation if caught using a cell phone when driving. Enforcement soon proved difficult, however, when violators defended hand-held cell phone use by claiming it necessarily occurred within the scope of their employment, which was one of the exceptions under the law.

In June, the Legislature passed several revisions, including eliminating the exception allowing cell phone use for work purposes. Exceptions for emergency use and use by emergency personnel are still in place, as are allowances for utility crews, some agricultural uses and tow trucks.

The revised law clarifies there are no exceptions for texting and driving.

'Flawed' law

Sen. Betsy Johnson, of Scappoose, is the lone Senate Democrat to vote against the law.

'If you want to talk about distracted drivers, how about a triple-patty, extra-sauce cheeseburger?' Johnson said. She said 2009's handsfree law and its revision, framed by House Bill 3186, are fundamentally flawed.

'I think that this is an incomplete response to a much deeper problem,' she said. She said the effectiveness of the law is also not adequately being measured at the state level and that enforcement further detracts from limited police resources.

'I want my policemen engaged in real instances of criminal behavior,' she said. 'With nobody measuring its efficacy, what have we really accomplished?'

Johnson's perspective on cell phones is increasingly in the minority, however. In fact, Oregon could be a step or two ahead of the curve if a recent federal recommendation to ban all forms of cell phone use, including the use of wireless headsets, gains traction.

Federal ban?

On Dec. 13 the National Safety Transportation Board announced its recommendation that all states adopt bans on the use of mobile devices when driving.

Nine states, including Oregon, currently ban the hand-held use of mobile devices for all drivers with some exceptions, and 35 states ban texting, according to information compiled on the Governors Highway Safety Association. Of those that ban held-held use, all but Maryland consider it a primary offense, meaning law enforcement can cite offenders in absence of some other moving violation.

In its recommendation, the federal board cited an August crash in Missouri in which distracted driving due to the use of mobile devices was the cause. Two people, including a student on a school bus, were killed in the two-collision crash.

Oregon State Police Sgt. Yvette Shepherd, who commands the St. Helens OSP worksite and lives in Portland, said the current law doesn't seem to have had a big effect on reducing motorists' hand-held phone use.

'I probably see five cars when I drive out here every day,' she said.

She said it's not uncommon for offenders to argue the use is occurring because it's an emergency or to plead ignorance. 'There are some people who say they're just oblivious to it.'

Whether or not the revised law will have more resonance with drivers is hard to foretell. Travis Kautenberg, owner of Wireless Etc. in St. Helens, said there was a flood of purchases for wireless devices in the lead up to the 2009 law going into effect. It's relatively quiet now, he said, though he anticipates many are putting off the purchase until after the first of the year.

'That's how people are,' he said.