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Ask A Cop: Can you text while you drive?

OLIVER(A Lake Oswego police officer answers readers' questions in this space every week. To submit a question call staff reporter Cliff Newell at 503 636-1281 ext 105 or send an email to cnewell@lakeoswegoreview.com)

“What does the law say about texting while driving?”

According to Oregon's cell phone law (ORS. 811.507), “a person commits the offense of operating a motor vehicle while using a mobile communication device if the person, while operating a motor vehicle on a highway, uses a mobile communication device.” If you are using your cell phone to send or read text messages, emails or other forms of typed communication, you could be in violation of ORS 811.507.

I say “could be” because drivers are not prohibited from using their cell phone as long as they are using a “hands-free accessory.”  To clarify: A hands-free accessory means any attachment or built-in feature of the phone or the vehicle that allows the driver to keep both hands on the steering wheel while using their cell phone. So if a driver is texting (or even reading a text message) while driving and the cell phone is in the driver’s hands while operating a vehicle, the driver is in violation of the cell phone statute.

As with any law, there are exceptions to the mobile communication device statute.  The statute does not apply to a person who activates or deactivates a mobile communication device or a function of the device, or who uses the device for voice communication, if the person:

• Is summoning medical or other emergency help if no other person is capable;

• Is using a mobile communication device for the purpose of farming or agricultural operations;

• Is operating an ambulance or emergency vehicle;

• Is 18 years of age or older AND is using a hands-free accessory;

• Is operating a motor vehicle while providing public safety services or emergency services;

• Is operating a motor vehicle while acting in the scope of the person’s employment as a public safety officer;

• Is operating a tow vehicle or roadside assistance vehicle while acting in the scope of their employment;

• Holds a valid amateur radio operator license or any other license issued by the FCC and is operating an amateur radio;

• Is operating a two-way radio device that transmits radio communication transmitted by a station operating on an authorized frequency within service bands in accordance with rules of the FCC;

• Is operating a vehicle owned or contracted by a utility for the purpose of installing, repairing, maintaining, operating or upgrading utility service, including but not limited to natural gas, electricity, water or telecommunications, while acting in the scope of their employment;

• Is using a function of the device that allows for only one-way voice communication while the person is:

• Is operating a motor vehicle in the scope of their employment;

•Is providing transit services; or

• Is participating in public safety or emergency service activities.

I like to explain to drivers stopped in violation of this statute that while they may be very careful drivers themselves, there are plenty of people on our roadways who are not.  If they’re encumbered by the use of their phone, regardless of the function being utilized, their ability to quickly react to any sudden changes in traffic around them — and maybe avoid a crash caused by someone else — is likely to be diminished.

As a traffic officer, I see many drivers in violation of the mobile communication device statute; often, that's accompanied by several other violations. These violations include failing to drive within their lane because they are looking down at the cell phone on their lap and not at the roadway; impeding traffic because they’re stopped at a green light while looking at their cell; failing to obey a traffic control device because they aren’t paying attention to stop signs or traffic lights; speeding; and failing to signal lane changes because their hands are encumbered by their phone.

These are all moving violations that not only present dangers to the phone user, but also to other people in and along the roadway. 

So if a driver is tech-savvy and able to use a hands-free accessory option, such as voice command texting, the law doesn’t preclude them from sending or being read a text message. The driver would just need to make sure the phone is not in their hands.

However, I would encourage every driver who sends or reads messages on their phone to stop and think about what they are doing. If they have to use their cell, they should try to find an appropriate place and time to do so (within the confines of the law). Essentially, drivers who take their eyes off the road for extended periods of time are just hoping nothing happens around them. That seems like an awfully big risk to take for a text message. If the base fine of $160 for a cell phone ticket isn’t enough of an incentive to stay off the cell, maybe the safety concerns for themselves and everyone else out on the roadway will be.

— Officer Jeff Oliver

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