Drivers not allowed to smoke in cars with youngsters; fines up for use of mobile devices

Two new laws going into effect Jan. 1 are aimed at increasing safety on Oregon roads, but in diverse ways. One law boosts the fine for using a handheld mobile device while driving, and another makes it illegal to smoke in a vehicle where children are present.

Senate Bill 9 changes Oregon’s traffic offense of operating a motor vehicle while using a mobile communication device from a Class D violation to a Class C. The minimum fine for a Class C violation is $142, but the fine for this offense can be as high as $500. The fine’s increase is aimed at reducing the number of crashes that involve a driver talking on a handheld phone or texting.

From 2009 to 2011 in Oregon, nine people died in crashes involving a driver who was reportedly using a cell phone at the time of the crash, and 673 people have been injured.

Using a cell phone while driving falls under the category of “distracted driving,” and this type of distraction is an increasingly dangerous behavior across the country. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver in the United States in 2011, compared to 3,267 in 2010.

The behavior is especially dangerous for younger drivers: 11 percent of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash.

Any activity that diverts a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving is dangerous. A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study revealed that physically dialing a phone while driving increases the risk of a crash by as much as six-fold. Texting is riskier still, increasing the collision risk by 23 times.

Even though a majority of Oregonians believe texting and hand-held cell phone use while driving is unsafe, some still choose to do so. According to a 2012 phone survey of Oregon drivers, more than 70 percent said they know cell phones are a safety problem and that phoning and texting while driving is illegal. In spite of this, cell phone convictions in Oregon have steadily risen from an initial 40 in 2008 to 22,892 in 2012.

Another new law is Senate Bill 444. This bill created a new category of offense — smoking in a vehicle while a person younger than 18 years old is present. The maximum fine for the first offense is $250, and the maximum fine for repeat offenses is $500.

This particular law is considered a “secondary” law, meaning that a police officer may cite for this offense only if the officer has already stopped a vehicle for another violation or offense.

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