Oregon drivers should be ready for a stricter version of the hands-free device law to go into effect on October 1, 2017. The new law, based on House Bill 2597, expressly expands the hands-free driving law beyond merely phone conversations and texting while driving. The new law generally prohibits holding or using any mobile electronic device while driving without a hands-free accessory. For drivers under 18 of age, the law continues to prohibit the use of a mobile device while driving regardless of whether a hands-free accessory is used.
The need for an updated hands-free driving law may surprise some Oregonians. Most police officers and others in the state had assumed that ORS 811.507 (enacted in 2009) already prohibited touching and using all mobile devices while driving. However, Oregon’s Court of Appeals concluded in 2015 that the law only prohibited talking and texting on a mobile communication device while driving, without extending to other types of uses. Given that conclusion, lawmakers worried that using a cell phone to play games while driving did not violate the law, along with many other uses.
The public should be ready for a renewed push by law enforcement to cite drivers for distracted driving due to the updated version of the law. Legitimate emergency situations and other factors can still serve as exemptions from the requirements of the hands-free driving law; however, police officers will no longer need to wonder whether a driver holding a cell phone is actually using that cell phone to call or text. Likewise, it will be easier for police officers to articulate a probable cause when stopping a vehicle for suspected violation of the law.
The legislature might unintentionally take time and resources away from cutting down on other types of dangerous driving by focusing on mobile devices at the expense of other distractions. For example, drivers who are eating or driving with pets in their lap will continue to comply with the law so long as they do not commit some independent driving violation. One can only hope that the greater restrictions of the new law are justified by increased safety for all.