Oregon bills seek to squelch distracting activity in vehicles

| Monday, March 12, 2007

Oregon legislators are looking to enable law enforcement to go after cell phone use or other activities that distract drivers.

Among the bills before lawmakers is an effort that would prohibit drivers from engaging in activities that include reading, writing, personal grooming or playing with pets while at the wheel. It also would prohibit hand-held cell phone use while driving.

Sponsored by Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, the bill - SB521 - would allow for drivers to be fined $360 if they can't manage other activities and drive unimpaired.

The effort is intended to address concerns from opponents of cell phone restrictions who say that talking on the devices is no more distracting than eating, drinking or changing radio stations while driving.

Three other measures focus solely on cell phone use.

One bill - SB246 - would forbid drivers in the state from talking on cell phones, including phones with "hands-free" accessories.

Bill supporters cite as the reason for the strict provision a study from the University of Utah that found when drivers between the ages of 18 and 25 talk on cell phones, they drive like elderly people - moving and reacting more slowly and increasing their risk of accidents.

Another bill - SB293 - also limits its focus to cell phone use while driving. But it would still allow drivers to use hands-free devices.

Violators of the cell phone rule would face fines up to $720 if they cause property damage or injury. Under SB246, any serious injuries that result could land offenders one year behind bars and more than $6,000 in fines.

One other bill - HB2482 - also would prohibit hand-held cell phone use while driving. Violators would face up to $90 fines.

Each bill would exempt emergency calls.

Currently, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York have the only statewide laws restricting hand-held cell phone use in vehicles. In 2008, California is slated to implement its own rule. No state prohibits hands-free usage.

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