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April 23rd, 2008 Amanda Waldroupe | News Stories
 

Phony Law

Cops aren’t enforcing a new ban on teens driving while on cell phones.

     
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TICKET TO SLIDE: Police say they’ve got higher-priority violations than gabby teen drivers.

When the Legislature passed a bill last May prohibiting teenage drivers younger than 18 from talking on their cell phones, Rep. Greg Macpherson (D-Lake Oswego) said the measure was overdue because of the danger such drivers pose.

“Having young and inexperienced drivers using their cell phone and texting while driving is inherently unsafe,” said Macpherson, now running in Oregon’s Democratic primary for attorney general.

Yet in WW’s inquiry of cops in five cities—Portland, Gresham, Eugene, Medford and Bend—traffic officers reported no citations to teens since the law took effect in January. The law is a Class D traffic violation, which carries a $97 fine.

“Since that law has been in effect, we have not written a single citation,” says Medford police traffic Sgt. Jerry Burchfield.

Burchfield and others say officers are busy citing other, higher-priority traffic violations.

“I doubt you’re ever going to see much significant enforcement,” says Sgt. Brian Schmautz, Portland police spokesman. “You’re typically not going to send officers out [on missions] for a secondary violation. It’s not an issue.”

The law’s categorization of cell-phone use while driving as a secondary traffic violation means teens cannot be ticketed for simply using a cell phone. They must have committed a traffic violation, such as running a red light, while talking on a cell phone. The teen could then be ticketed for using a cell phone only if the police officer determined such use contributed to the primary violation.

Macpherson, who wrote the measure, House Bill 2872, now says he never expected the law to be enforced. “I’m not looking at having teens cited for their cell-phone use,” says Macpherson. “This law’s main advantage is that it will reinforce good parenting.”

John Kroger, Macpherson’s opponent in the May 20 attorney general primary, faults Macpherson for passing a law not intended for enforcement. “If we put a law on the books, we ought to enforce it,” Kroger says. “If they aren’t enforced, they’re just words on a piece of paper.”

State Rep. Brian Clem (D-Salem), the only House Democrat to vote against the bill, thinks the lack of enforcement means the Legislature needs to revisit the law in 2009. “We either need to talk to law enforcement about what’s going to work or get rid of it entirely,” Clem says.


FACT: Oregon Department of Transportation data shows crashes caused by cell-phone use have more than tripled since 2002, from 80 to 292 in 2006. More than one in five—22 percent—involved teenagers.
 
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