Writings and observations

cell phoneYou really do need to read the fine print. To casually browse the Oregonian this morning, where the above-fold front page was dominated by a story on cell phone regulation, the impression you’d get would be fairly black/white: Cell advocates on one side, and the people who’d like to ban them altogether from the ranks of drivers on the other.

The actual legislative debate turns out to be a good deal more nuanced. And, in our view, more realistic.

A bunch of proposed pieces of legislation have been drafted, but the Oregon Senate Judiciary Committee seems to have boiled down the live prospects to two. It held a hearing on them this afternoon.

The less interesting of the two is Senate Bill 293, which disallows drivers (while driving, of course) from using a hand-held cell phone, though “hands free” use (with a headset or the equivalent) would still be allowed. It’s similar to an effort now underway in Washington. This has the fell of a compromise position, and maybe it is, though the committee was told about several series of studies that show no better driving skills for users of hands-free compared to hand-held. (Did any of those studies compare concentration impairment from cell phone conversations against in-car passenger conversations? We’d be fascinated to see any such results, but we’ve heard of none; implicitly, we suspect one kind of conversation is about as distracting as the other. If so, do we see a proposal to ban car-pooling next?)

The other bill, which is the one backed by the Oregon State Police, seems more interesting, and also more subtle.

Andy Olson
Representative Andy Olson

That is Senate Bill 521, sponsored by state Representative Andy Olson, R-Albany, who was a career Oregon State Police officer. The OSP organization also backs it. Its big plus is that it puts the focus on the key point: Bad driving.

Here is the key language from that bill:

A person commits the offense of distracted driving if the person operates a motor vehicle on a highway while engaging in a distracting activity that interferes with the person’s ability to operate the motor vehicle.
(2) For purposes of this section:
(a) “Distracting activity” includes, but is not limited to, reading, writing, performing personal grooming, interacting with pets or unsecured cargo, using a mobile communication device and engaging in any activity that diverts a person’s attention from the operation of a motor vehicle.

Note the phrase, “that diverts a person’s attention from the operation of a motor vehicle;” if the activity in the car isn’t impairing the driving, then there’s no violation. (That, at least, is Olson’s and the OSP’s interpretation. We would favor a slight amending touch-up to clarify the point.)

The problem, he suggested, isn’t cell phones per se, but distraction. Not always are cell phones a problem, though clearly they sometimes are. It’s an attempt – a valiant one – to legislate against obliviousness. Proper enforcement using it would require careful judgement on the part of the patrols, but maybe there’s no legal substitute for that.

Olson told a cop story from when he was patrolling on I-5 and spotted a woman in a Mercedes speeding, drastically. He caught up with her and ticketed her for speeding. But another factor made him think something more was needed: Through the whole incident, from speeding to being pulled over, to dealing with Olson, to being ticketed, to driving off – she never quit her cell phone conversation, with her mother about wedding plans.

His testimony about SB521:

It does not restrict the use of cellular phones while driving. It focuses on driving behavior rather than restricting the act. It identifies a number of activities that could cause a driver to divert his attention, but is not limited to those activities alone. It allows an officer to take action based upon prima facie evidence. It simply says you can use your cell phone while operating a motor vehicle as long as it does not interfere with safe driving behavior [emphasis added]. One may ask, don’t we have enough laws on the books that address different issues right now while one is driving. Yes, we do. We do have failure to maintain a single lane of travel, we do have failure to drive to the right. We do have careless and reckless driving, and a host of other laws. But we do not have a statute that addresses driving behavior due to the activity of this nature.

So your kids are in the back seat making a ruckus, and you’re trying to deal with it, and you’re doing a little swerving as a result? Yep, that would put you in violation. And why not? If you’re not in control of your vehicle, lives are at risk, whether the cause is screaming kids or a cell phone conversation.

One of the veteran OSP officers at the meeting told of what he described as the single worst traffic accident he’d ever seen: Caused by a mother who turned around to shush her kids, then rolled into the oncoming lane and smashed into a truck.

It’s not just cell phones (culpable though their users sometimes are, and we can all tell stories) out there. The OSP troopers would tell you that.

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There’s a useful comparison in the Horse’s Ass blog today about how the Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer” each handle, in their news stories, the testimony of the owner of the Seattle Sonics before the Washington legislature, as he pitches the case for a new sports arena.

bullet The lead in the Times: “Sonics owner Clay Bennett ended a long-running mystery Tuesday when he told state lawmakers he prefers Renton over Bellevue for a new $500 million basketball arena.” Emphasis: the choice of Renton as a location.

bullet The lead in the P-I: “The Seattle Sonics want the public to pay for most of a new $500 million multipurpose arena in Renton, they want most of the proceeds from that facility and they want the money without a public vote, owner Clay Bennett told lawmakers Tuesday.” Emphasis: public payment for an arena.

Both stories did point out that actually getting the public money will not be easy.

But it does suggest, again, how one event can be seen differently through different eyes, even if accurately both times.

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Just a quick reminder that our weekly Wednesday chat, our third, is on for tonight at 6 pm Pacific, 7 pm Mountain, accessible off this page. (Scroll down to the right to the “nickname” box, enter your name, click the button, and you’re in.) It lasts about an hour; feel free to jump in or out any time.

The last two were enjoyable discussions. Greg Smith, a co-founder, was under the the weather and had to miss the last one, but he should be back tonight. Along with, well, who knows who.

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