My View: Safety is behind a move to boost fines for failing to hang up and drive

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW - A rush hour driver on the Sunset Highway talks on his cell phone. Oregon lawmakers are set to increase fines for texting or talking on a cell phone while driving.In 2009, the Oregon Legislature passed House Bill 2377, which banned the use of handheld mobile phones while driving. Oregon is one of 39 states that prohibit texting and driving, and these laws enjoy the support of a large majority of Americans.

The original motivation for the bill came from Canby resident Peggy Tucker. Her daughter was killed and her son-in-law and grandson were injured after their car was hit by a 19-year-old driver who was reaching for her cell phone and not paying attention to the road.

Peggy’s life was forever changed. She and her husband Don have worked diligently to make certain that other families do not have to go through the sorrow they experienced.

Unfortunately, cell phone use and texting while driving is still widespread. You often see other drivers fumbling with their phones while cruising down the freeway at 70 miles per hour. You often see drivers glancing down at their phones in school zones with many children around. You often see people turning right or left, endangering pedestrians while looking at their phones. You also may have the experience of watching nervously from the passenger seat as your own driver pulls out a cell phone and starts trying to type a message.

You would be right to be nervous. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study shows that drivers who use cell phones are four times more likely to be in an accident that results in injury to themselves than drivers who do not.

In Oregon, cell phones were reported to be a factor in 840 crashes between 2009 and 2010 — and it’s likely these incidents are greatly underreported.

According to a University of Utah study, distraction from cell phone use extends a driver’s reaction time as much as having a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent — equally as impaired as driving drunk.

Last week, police in Oregon gave out more than 100 citations for cell phone law violations in a single day (this was part of a statewide effort to target texting, speeding and use of seat belts; these 125 citations were issued as a result of a Portland area joint enforcement effort between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Feb. 21 by 30 police officers patrolling Southeast 82nd Avenue, Interstate 205 and Interstate 84).

The issue is not only that a driver’s eyes are off of the road, but also that the driver’s attention is off of the road. It requires focus to carry on a conversation, and it requires even more to do it over the phone or via text or email.

When a driver converses with a passenger, the passenger is also another set of eyes on the road. She sees the oncoming traffic, knows to pause the conversation when faced with driving hazards. In a phone call or text message, this added attention is lost. There is no awareness on the recipient’s part of the driver’s immediate circumstance.

The problem is clear, and we must take this problem seriously. The fine associated with this dangerous behavior must reflect the seriousness of the risks involved. It should be raised.

There are two bills this session that attempt to do that: House Bill 2790 (of which I am the chief sponsor) and Senate Bill 9. HB 2790 increases the maximum fine for driving and using a mobile communication device from $250 to $2,000. Most drivers would be ticketed an initial fine of $435, up from the current $110.

SB 9 elevates the same offense from a Class D violation to a Class B violation and be subject to a maximum fine of $1,000. Highway signs would be posted alerting drivers of the potential cost of such a violation. Most drivers would be ticketed an initial fine of $260, up from the current $110.

Critics say that what a person does in his or her own vehicle should be up to that individual. The fact is that drivers who are distracted with their phones are not just a danger to themselves and the others in their own car — they are a danger to other drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians who share the road.

Drivers have a responsibility to their passengers and others on the road around them to give their full and undivided attention to the road. We must demand that drivers do not recklessly endanger other Oregonians.

State Rep. Carolyn Tomei represents Clackamas County’s House District 41. She was a co-sponsor of 2009’s House Bill 2377.

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