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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Oregon Lawmakers May Clarify State Law On Using A Smartphone Behind The Wheel

Kevin Mooney
Northwest News Network
A proposal in the Oregon Legislature would make it illegal to use -- or even hold -- any mobile electronic devices while driving.

Oregon lawmakers are considering a measure that would make it illegal to check your social media feeds while you're behind the wheel. A House panel takes up the bill Monday afternoon.

Almost a decade ago, Oregon lawmakers banned the use of hand-held cell phones to talk or text while driving. Since then smart-phones have exploded in popularity and are used for all sorts of things, not just texting or calling someone.

The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in 2015 that Oregon's cell phone law does not technically make it illegal to check Facebook, look up a podcast or even read your Kindle while behind the wheel.

The proposal under consideration would clarify that all mobile electronic devices are included, and that holding one in your hand for any reason while driving would be a violation. The measure would also increase the penalty for being caught, and increase it even more for if the offense led to a crash.

The measure would maintain the current exception to the ban for emergency situations, as well as drivers of emergency vehicles. Drivers age 18 and older would still be able to use mobile electronic devices for any purpose as long as they are using a hands-free accessory.

The bill would also remove an exception to the law for people operating amateur radios, sometimes called "ham radios." That change is opposed by an organization representing amateur radio operators.

In written testimony, John Core of the Amateur Radio Relay League said that amateur radios provide an important auxiliary emergency communications option for public agencies during natural disasters. Core wrote that removing the exemption for ham radio operators would "serve as a significant disincentive for Amateurs to install and maintain radios in their vehicles."