SALEM, Ore. - As of Jan. 1, you can get slapped with a $90 fine if you use a hand-held cell phone while driving in Oregon. Will that be enough to encourage motorists to keep their full attention on the road? And how well can the law be enforced?
Oregon will become one of seven states that have banned driving while talking on a handheld cell phone, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The ban, approved by the 2009 Oregon Legislature, does not apply to drivers using a cell phone equipped with a handsfree device. It also has exceptions for certain drivers, including those working in public safety, and for others who are "operating a motor vehicle in the scope of the person's employment."
Highway safety officials and law enforcement agencies are gearing up to publicize and enforce the law, which they say will make roads safer.
Salem resident Jim Allhiser, who owns a home inspection business, isn't waiting for Jan. 1. He's already making arrangements to get rid of his hand-held cell phone in favor of a hands-free device.
Allhiser said there's part of him that views the new law as a "Nanny State" intrusion into people's lives. But in the main, he said, it's probably a good idea for the state to lean on motorists to hang up and drive.
"It's like a seat belt. When I grew up, no one wore them. I wear one every day now, and there's no doubt in my mind it keeps me safer," he said.
Some law enforcement officials are concerned about the broad wording of the provision in the law that grants exceptions for certain drivers. They worry about officers spending time pulling over drivers they see talking on a hand-held cell phone, only to discover they were doing so lawfully.
"It won't be a difficult law to enforce, but there will be circumstances that may need clarification," Oregon State Police Lt. Gregg Hastings said.
A key backer of the law, Sen. Ginny Burdick, said the exemption was worded broadly as a compromise to help it win approval. She said the intent is to offer the exemption to people whose car is tantamount to being their workplace -- such as sales and delivery workers.
"Just calling someone at your office to catch up on gossip is definitely not what we had in mind," the Portland Democrat said.
In 2007, Oregon lawmakers made it illegal for teenagers younger than 18 to talk on cellphones and drive, but the law said police could ticket teens only if they had been stopped for another traffic violation. Local police said that provision made the law difficult to enforce.
The new law taking effect in January would still prohibit teens from driving and talking, even on a handsfree set, and make it a primary offense for drivers of any age to text or use a hand-held cell phone.
Marie Dodds, spokeswoman for Oregon-Idaho AAA, said the auto club thinks Oregon's new law is a step in the right direction. However, Dodds said she hopes the new law's provision allowing for use of hands-free devices while driving doesn't give Oregon motorists a false sense of security.
Evidence shows that using a hands-free phone while driving impairs a driver's reaction and increases crash risk about the same as if the driver is using a hand-held phone, Dodds said.
With either type of phone, she said, "your mental focus and concentration are on that phone conversation, not on driving."
Figures from the Oregon Transportation Safety Division show that the number of traffic deaths and injuries attributable to cell phone use is small.
In 2007, the most recent year for which complete figures are available, there were four fatal crashes where a driver was using a cell phone and 195 injury crashes -- which accounted for 1 percent of the total number of traffic deaths and injuries in Oregon that year.
Troy Costales, head of the agency, said the Legislature moved to toughen the law because individual lawmakers have been hearing from constituents angry about cell phone users speeding, running stop signs and weaving across highway lanes.
"They had their constituents telling them that this situation is getting out of hand," Costales said.
Jay Waterbury, president of the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police, said the amount of enforcement of the new cell phone ban likely will vary from place to place.
Waterbury, who is the police chief in The Dalles, said that answering citizen requests for assistance on other matters will take a priority over handing out tickets to motorists talking on hand-held cell phones.
"If an officer is spending his whole day running from a burglary call to a fight call, then this law isn't going to get much attention from him that day," he said.
Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety said studies of several states that have banned the cell phones for some time indicate that use of the phones creeps back up if there isn't strong, continuing enforcement of those bans.
An exception is the District of Columbia, where use of the hand-held devices remains low five years after the ban was adopted, Rader said.
"DC has a reputation for being a tough traffic enforcement town," he said. "We know that tough, publicized enforcement is the key to getting drivers to put down their phones."
Salem real estate broker Sylvia Perry is among those who are in full support of Oregon's new cell-phone ban.
She has often used a cell phone in her car to arrange house showings and make appointments with appraisers and inspectors. She had a close call one day while engaging in one of those conversations. The motorist ahead of her suddenly hit the brakes, forcing Perry to slam on hers.
"All of my stuff went sliding off the seat; my purse was upside down on the floor and I was thinking, "That was not good," because I was on the phone," she says.
For safety reasons, Perry says she's been trying to talk less while driving. She says she often pulls off the road and parks if a client or somebody else wants to have a detailed phone discussion with her.