Through a service called "Flash Alert," newspapers (and anyone else) receive news releases from various participating entities, including law enforcement. The majority of the emails that we receive through the service involve fatalities on our state's highways.
Over the past year, one particular phrase has become very common in these news releases: "For unknown reasons, the vehicle crossed over the center line."
Reading this statement in most releases tends to make you a little paranoid when driving on a two-lane road at highway speeds. You have to trust that the vehicle coming at you in the opposite direction is going to stay in their lane. Years ago, if a vehicle crossed the center line, it usually involved drunk driving, speeding and aggressive driving, although you also had the occasional heart attack, bee sting or some other unique situation.
Those situations still occur today, of course, but distracted driving has also become a factor. That brings me to a bill that became a law and went into effect just this week.
Rep. Andy Olson, who is from Albany and represents nearby House District 15, spent nearly a year involved in a work group consisting of members from the Oregon Department of Transportation, judges, law enforcement and other interested parties developing a new cellphone policy. The result involves more strict usage of a cellphone when behind the wheel with one of the hopes being it will cut down on distractions and ultimately, unsafe driving.
The former cellphone law, Olson said, was written in such a way that it was misinterpreted and included too many exceptions making it difficult to educate and enforce. Olson offers the following example: The law prohibited the driver from texting and using a cellphone except for a hands-free environment, but did not restrict the driver from scrolling through Facebook or checking emails.
Four other issues that came up in an Oregon Court of Appeals case were identified in 2015. Thus, the work group was created to work on fixing those issues.
"I feel it necessary to highlight some parts of the new policy as I have seen numerous inaccuracies reported from several media sources," Olson said. "The new policy dealing with electronic devices is fairly simple — the driver cannot operate a motor vehicle while holding any type of electronic device."
A driver may use their cellphone if it involves a hands-free accessory, which refers to an attachment or built-in feature or an addition to a mobile electronic device that when used gives a person the ability to keep both hands on the steering wheel.
There are exceptions to what is acceptable with cellphone use while driving:
· Drivers who are 17 or younger may not use electronic devices, even if using a hands-free device.
· Use of a single touch or swipe to activate or deactivate the device or a function is allowed.
· While providing or summoning medical help and no one else is available to make the call.
· When parked safely; for example, stopped at the side of the road or in a designated parking spot. It is not legal to use the device when stopped at a stop light, stop sign, in traffic, etc.
· Truck or bus drivers following the federal rules for CDL holders.
· Using a two-way radio: CB users, school bus drivers and utility truck drivers in the scope of employment.
· Ambulance or emergency vehicle operators in the scope of employment.
· Police, fire, EMS providers in the scope of employment (can include when in a personal vehicle if, for example, when responding to an emergency call).
· HAM radio operators, age 18 and older.
For a first offense within a 10-year period and not contributing to a crash, it is designated as a Class B violation with a minimum fine of $130. However, for a first offense that does not involve a crash, the court may suspend the fine if the driver completes an approved distracted driving avoidance course and shows proof to the court within four months. Only the fine is suspended and the violation would remain on the driver's DMV record.
On the second offense or if it contributes to a crash, it is then a Class A violation with a minimum fine of $220.
After that, it gets more serious. The third offense within 10 years is a Class B misdemeanor with a minimum mandatory fine of $2,000 and the possibility of serving six months in jail.
It's clear that something needed to be done about distracted driving. Based on 2015 numbers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 3,477 people were killed and 391,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers.
Olson reported that during daylight hours, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cellphones while driving.
"That creates enormous potential for deaths and injuries on U.S. roads," Olson said. "Teens were the largest age group reported as distracted at the time of fatal crashes. One out of four crashes are caused by distracted drivers."
So, stay away from texting while driving and if taking a call is necessary and you don't have a hands-free device, just pull over in a safe spot. As Brooks Hatlen says in "The Shawshank Redemption" after he was released following decades in prison, "The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry."
Well, slow down your world a little when you're driving. It can be a challenge for many people to step away from electronics for a while, especially those with intense jobs, bored while driving or others who are simply addicted. You might think you're the best driver in the world and can handle it or perhaps you believe you just won't get caught. That could be true, until it's not. And then it's too late.