OR Senate votes to expand distracted driving law

The bill makes it illegal to even hold a phone while driving

An man works his phone as he drives through traffic in Dallas, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon lawmakers are cracking down on distracted driving, which the Oregon Department of Transportation has called an epidemic.

A new bill that passed 21-8 in the Oregon Senate makes it illegal to do anything on your phone while driving. House Bill 2597 expands the 2010 law that made it illegal to talk or text while driving and increases the penalty from a $500 fine to $2,000.

The bill defines a “mobile electronic device” as something not permanently installed in a car that you use for texting, talking, playing music, navigation, internet etc.

“We are broadening the scope of what qualifies under the definition of using a mobile communication device while driving,” Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene), who carried the bill in the Senate, said in a press release. “This will help discourage drivers from being distracted by their cell phones or handheld devices and improve traffic safety by reducing a lot of preventable accidents.”

Until 2013, the state’s traffic fatalities had gone down steadily for 10 years in a row, but last year, 495 people died on Oregon roads. That’s a 58% increase from 2013 and an ODOT task force on distracted driving blames cell phone use for some of it.

This bill may also have an impact on insurance rates, which have been steadily climbing because of those distracted driving related crashes and claims. A broader definition of distracted driving may help law enforcement crack down on it and hopefully reduce the number of incidents.

“If a law was to really institute some significant change is distracted driving behavior and you see a decrease in accidents as a result of that, then that would eventually be reflected in the insurance premium rates that you pay,” Brad Hillard with State Farm Insurance said.

ODOT recently re-released a public service announcement about the dangers of distracted driving featuring a woman who died in a crash caused by her own texting.

HB 2597 will now go back to the House for concurrence and to Governor Kate Brown for her signature.