Distracted driving is one of the largest public health crises in America today, and Oregon is not immune to its impacts. According to ODOT crash data, 93 people died on Oregon roads between 2006 and 2011 and there were over 18,000 collisions due to distracted driving. If you like to ride a bike, this issue is of immense importance given that you ride just a few feet away from people driving multi-ton steel vehicles.
Yesterday at the state capitol in Salem, legislators attended an event to raise awareness of the issue and even Governor Kitzhaber has gotten involved by declaring this coming Friday, September 19th, “Distraction-Free Driving Day” in Oregon.
In a lobby of the capitol building, several top members of the Oregon House and Senate added their names to the over 5 million Americans who have already taken AT&T’s “It can wait” pledge. According to an AT&T spokesperson who was at yesterday’s event, the legislators included: Senate President Peter Courtney, Sen. Diane Rosenbaum, Sen. Ted Ferrioli, Sen. Jackie Winters, House Speaker Tina Kotek, Rep. Val Hoyle and Rep. Mike McLane, Rep. Shemia Fagan and Rep. Barbara Smith Warner.
The communications giant has launched the initiative to encourage people to not text and drive. Part of the campaign encourages people to text “#X” before they get into their car to let friends know they are driving and won’t respond to messages.
Last week, AT&T brought a driving and texting simulator to the Capitol and legislators tried it out for the media. According to the Salem Statesman-Journal, Senator Courtney had quite the experience trying to drive and use his phone at the same time: “It was terrible. I was hitting cars. I was running red lights,” Courtney told the paper. “You start to move off the road, and you don’t even realize it.”
In a proclamation issued a few days ago, Governor Kitzhaber issued an official state proclamation deeming September 19th Distraction-Free Driving Day.
Here’s the text of the proclamation:
WHEREAS: The State of Oregon holds the health and safety of its citizens as a paramount concern; and
WHEREAS: Distracted driving occurs when drivers engage in activities that divert their attention from the road and their primary task of driving — such as texting, talking on a cell phone, interacting with passengers, listening to loud music, and reading; and
WHEREAS: Texting, because it distracts the driver’s visual manual, and cognitive abilities, is especially dangerous for the driver and others on the roadways; and
WHEREAS: Between 2006 and 2011, 18,146 vehicle crashes occurred in Oregon as a result of distracted driving, resulting in 15,356 injuries and 93 deaths; and
WHEREAS: The Oregon Legislature has taken several steps over the past five years to prohibit and discourage the use of handheld devices while driving.
NOW, THEREFORE: I John A. Kitzhaber, M.D., Governor of the State of Oregon, hereby proclaim September 19, 2014 to be Distraction-Free Driving Day in Oregon and encourage all Oregonians to join in this observance.
Those “actions” Kitzhaber refers to are bills passed by the legislature to punish people who use devices while driving. The latest was Senate Bill 9, which passed in 2013 and bumped the cell phone use infraction up from a Class D traffic violation (with a base fine of $110 and maximum of $250) to a Class C violation (with a base fine of $260 and a maximum of $1,000). In addition to higher fines, SB 9 allowed ODOT to spend $123,000 on highway signage reminding drivers of the consequences.
In testimony in support of that bill back in 2013, Senator Courtney said he believes distracted driving is just as serious as drunk driving. “As such, there should be a very serious consequence,” he testified, “My intention with this bill is to achieve the same attitude towards texting and driving as there currently is towards drinking and driving.”
Oregon has a long ways to to go before our driving and traffic culture sees cell phone use in the same light as drinking and driving. Beyond proclamations and photo-ops, what we need is more money for enforcement. We also need ODOT and the state to do more to protect road users — especially vulnerable ones like bicycle riders — from momentary lapses of attention. More physically protected bicycle lanes and off-highway bicycle pathways should be seen as a key part of the solution.
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