SPECIAL REPORT: Talking, Texting & Tickets: thousands of Oregon drivers still breaking cell phone law
EUGENE / SPRINGFIELD, Ore. (KMTR) -- For more than two years, state law has required Oregonians to put down their cell phones when behind the wheel and use a hands-free device. While it might not seem like a big deal, it’s a dangerous mistake according to state police agencies - a mistake that is causing a direct impact on lives in Oregon.Oregon State Police says the number of drivers who aren’t using hands-free devices is too high and carries a huge risk. Cell phone-related crashes have killed at least 20 and injured over a thousand people in Oregon in the last several years. "We're in an era of connectivity.People think that if your phone rings it's a priority," says Trooper Clay Core with the Oregon State Police Springfield Command. “There’s people out there that absolutely cannot multi-task and they can't operate a vehicle safely when they're using different electronic devices.”An OSP trooper for six years, Core has seen the problem first-hand when drivers mix transit and technology. “I've seen some very terrible driving where I suspected that the operator of the vehicle is intoxicated and when I get there, they're distracted by talking on their cell phone,” he said. “Failing to maintain their own lane and they'll start approaching vehicles too closely - that can be a very dangerous problem.” Statewide statistics back the claim. According to the Oregon Department of Transportation’s (ODOT) Transportation Development Division, drivers using cell phones caused at least 202 crashes in Oregon in 2011, injuring 179 and killing at least four people. As of April 30, 2012, the data for last year is only 92% complete and could include more incidents.“I'll stop people on a daily basis for cell phone violations,” Trooper Core said. “They say, ‘all of the sudden I looked up and there it was’.” Since 2006, cell phone crashes injured at least 1,401 people in Oregon, with at least twenty deaths caused by cell phone related crashes. State legislators banned drivers from using cell phones without a hands-free device in 2010. Despite the law, the problem persists: in 2011 alone, OSP troopers pulled over 3,782 drivers for using their phones while driving. “For the people who live within the state of Oregon, we've had this law for a few years now and everybody should be aware that it's illegal to use your cell phone without a hands-free device,” Trooper Core stated.The only exception to the law is in the event of an emergency; utility works, farmers and tow trucks drivers who are on the job are also exempt from the law.Many drivers simply ignore the law. To get an idea of how prevalent cell phone abuse is, NewsSource 16 recently took a camera out in a private car around Eugene-Springfield area in an attempt to record cell-using drivers on camera.Virtually everywhere we went, our camera caught someone violating the law. On Coburg Road near the Ferry Street Bridge, we spotted a woman using her cell phone while taking a congested off-ramp. At Beltline Highway, a male driver was seen exiting onto Interstate 5 South while holding a phone to his ear. On 6th Avenue, doing more than 30 miles per hour, a female driver was looking down at her cell phone while talking to a passenger in the car.Police have the authority to pull over drivers using cell phones as a primary offense. “I don't have to wait to watch for somebody weaving in their lane or committing another moving violation before I stop them for (using) a cell phone,” reported Trooper Core.Police will also pull over drivers who have a phone in hand using the speaker feature. “It's called hands-free not ears-free, so having it (the cell phone) out in front of you like that is almost easier to see and it's just as much of a violation,” said Trooper Core.If you think texting at a stop light is okay, think again. That's also against the law. “You're still operating a vehicle even though you're stopped at a red light,” Trooper Core stated. “There will be a green light; they didn't notice it turned green and they'll still be stopped at a green light and now they're impeding traffic.” For those who are caught, the ticket is a Class D violation with a base fine of $142.“If you think it's a priority to use your phone while driving and you don't use a hands-free device, I think you're very deserving of getting a citation,” said Core. “Phone calls can wait, at least until you can pull off to a safe location to use your phone." In the first three months of 2012, OSP troopers issued almost 500 citations and nearly 600 warnings.Since public safety is the goal, pulling over behind-the-wheel cell phone users is work that will continue for law enforcement officers across Oregon. “No conversation is worth it while you're driving down the road and that if you absolutely have to use it (a cell phone), just use a hands-free device and you won't have the problem,” said Trooper Core.For more information on several studies illustrating the danger of texting or talking on your phone while driving, visit the following link: http://www.distraction.gov/content/get-the-facts/research.html.