Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites

State to teens: hang up!

It's now illegal for young drivers to talk on cell phones while behind the wheel
by: Chase Allgood,

Every time 16-year-old Hattie Hixson climbs into her dark blue Volkswagen Beetle and zooms off, her mother, Paula, has three expectations.

She figures Hattie's seatbelt is fastened.

She assumes her mind is on the road.

And she hopes her daughter's cellular phone is tucked away inside her purse, not perched next to her ear.

'She knows our feelings on it,' said Paula. 'Hattie drives a stick-shift, and she drives a lot. She doesn't need another thing to pay attention to in the car.'

Talking on the cell phone while driving is something the Hixsons, who live in Forest Grove, have agreed is a bad idea. As of Jan. 1, it's against the law in Oregon for drivers under 18.

That's when House Bill 2872, aimed at limiting distractions for young drivers, went into effect. A teen caught using a mobile communication device, whether hand-held or hands-free, while operating a motor vehicle faces a Class D traffic violation and a $97 fine.

The law, which covers talking and text messaging alike, is all right with Hattie, who uses the car to run errands for her mother and ferry her sister to dance lessons in Hillsboro. She passed her driver license test as soon as she turned 16 last March.

'I think it's a good idea, especially the text messaging part,' said Hattie, a junior at Forest Grove High School. 'It's really unsafe.'

She even thinks the law is likely to save some teenage lives.

'Obviously we're more careless than older drivers and we have more accidents,' Hattie said. 'We think it's not going to be us.'

'Largely unenforceable'

It's going to be a bit tricky for local police officers to enforce the new law.

'We're wondering about the practicality of going out there and enforcing it,' said Forest Grove Police Chief Glenn VanBlarcom. Judging whether a cell phone-using driver is under 18 is a difficult task, VanBlarcom observed.

'What do you do? Do you stop them and say, 'I think you have a provisional driver license?' How do you know?' he asked. 'To go out and actually look for teens on cell phones - that's not going to happen.'

In VanBlarcom's mind, adherence to the law from his officers' side might have to wait until after a teen gets into a fender bender.

'If it's a kid who fits the criteria, that's when we're likely going to take a look at cell phone records and see if it could have contributed to the crash,' he said.

For some new drivers, such as 17-year-old Ali Actor of Forest Grove, the law poses no real burden.

'I think it'll affect me a little bit, but not as much as other people, because I don't have access to a car all the time,' said the FGHS senior.

She said she rarely chats on her cell phone while driving her parents' car, which has a manual transmission.

'Sometimes I'll use it if I need directions,' said Ali. 'But that's about it.'

Margie Waltz-Actor, Ali's mother, said she expects her daughter to refrain from using the phone while she's behind the wheel. She's 100 percent in favor of the new law.

'I think it's a fabulous idea,' said Waltz-Actor. 'If it cuts down on distractions, particularly for young drivers, I'm all for it.'

Ironically, even though Ali has only six months of driving experience under her belt, she'll become exempt from the cell phone law as soon as she turns 18 on Jan. 30. It's the same story for Andrew Erickson, a freshman at Pacific University in Forest Grove.

Erickson, 18, has been driving since he was 15, when he got his driver permit. He passed the test for his license on his 16th birthday.

Whether to use his cell phone while operating his 2001 Mazda Protégé is something Erickson, a pre-medicine major, has given a good deal of consideration.

Because he makes 'at least one call' every time he drives, Erickson decided to purchase a Bluetooth wireless headset for use in his car. He ended up giving it to his father.

'I didn't really like it much,' he said.

And although he's not a purist when it comes to cell phone use in the car, Erickson draws the line at text messaging.

'I do not text message while driving,' he insisted. 'In my experience that tends to produce a lot more near-misses than talking does.'

Making a dent

Connor Kelsay, 17, commutes from his home in Forest Grove to classes at Portland Community College's Rock Creek campus twice a week. He tries not to use his cell phone when driving his 1999 Honda Saturn.

The law won't change his life much, Kelsay said, but he believes it could make a dent in the number of teen drivers who indulge in the act of gabbing while driving. 'I'm sure it'll make some teens pretty unhappy,' he said.

Kelsay questioned whether officers would be able to effectively enforce the law.

'Most of the teen drivers I know won't stop talking on cell phones,' he said. 'I think they'll try and hide it by putting it down when they see a cop.'

Should apply to all

Like most mothers, Banks resident Tamara Sandwisch worries about the safety of her 17-year-old son, Jordan - particularly when he's driving.

The Banks High School senior has had his license for a year and drives the family's Mazda 3 back and forth to his job at Subway, about a mile away from his home.

Jordan screens his calls when he's behind the wheel, picking up for his mom, his dad and a select group of friends.

After Tamara heard about the cell phone law on the radio last week, she asked Jordan if he knew about it.

'He did,' said Tamara, who expects Jordan to limit his minutes on the phone while in the car. 'It was good to be able to reinforce that,' she said.

Jordan is aware that some people believe cell phone conversations contribute to as many - or even more - traffic accidents than drunk drivers.

For him, that makes it obvious that the new law should cover everyone, whether they're 16 or 86.

'It unfairly targets teens,' Jordan said. 'If they're going to make a law about cell phones, it shouldn't be limited to us.'