The Oregon Legislature earlier this month closed a loophole in the state’s regulation for use of electronic devices behind the wheel – making it illegal for drivers to touch their phones or other devices while driving. The law kicks in October 1.
House Bill 2597 passed July 6, the second-to-last day the Legislature was in session. Sponsored by Rep. Andy Olson (D-Albany), Sen. Ginny Burdick (D-Portland) and Rep. Ann Lininger (D-Lake Oswego), the bill redefines a “mobile electronic” device to make it easier to convict someone of distracted driving.
Driving while using a mobile device was already illegal in Oregon, but previous cases were often dismissed in court due to a loophole stemming from a 2015 Oregon Court of Appeals ruling. In the State of Oregon v. Esmirna Rabanales-Ramos, a state trooper pulled a driver over after noticing her face was lit with the glow from an electronic device.
She failed a field sobriety test and was arrested for driving under the influence, but the court ruled the trooper did not have probable cause to pull Rabanales-Ramos over, because he didn’t see her speaking or pressing buttons. The court ruled that the existing law – which defined a mobile device as a device used to receive and transmit text and voice communication – only applied to drivers using the phone to communicate, as opposed to reading texts or email or social media sites.
HB 2597 clarifies the existing law, defining “mobile electronic device” as a device capable of text messaging, voice communication, entertainment, navigation, accessing the Internet or producing electronic mail. The law includes exceptions for commercial motor vehicle drivers and bus drivers using electronic devices in the scope of their work; those operating two-way citizens’ band radio devices and utility workers using electronic devices related to their employment.
Drivers using their phones to summon emergency services, drivers using hands-free accessories and farmers and emergency workers using devices for work are also exempt from the law.
A driver’s third or subsequent conviction within a 10-year period will carry $2,000 fine. For first or second offenders, the court may waive fees on the condition that the driver pay for and take a distracted driving class. The law also requires the Oregon Department of Transportation to place signs on state highways notifying drivers of the new law and penalties.