Alongside the rise in popularity of smartphones, most states have put distracted driving laws on the books over the past decade. Getting caught calling or texting behind the wheel can cost drivers from $20 in California for a first offense to a whopping $10,000 in Alaska.
But if you look around in traffic on any given day, you know that fines are not enough to stop some people from checking incoming text messages or Facebook status updates while driving. So several states add jailtime as an even stronger deterrent, including Oregon, where I live and drive.
An Oregon law that went into effect July 1 raises the penalties for distracted driving with each offense, culminating in possible jailtime. A first offense that doesn't contribute to a crash carries a fine of up to $1,000, while the fine for a second offense or first offense contributing to a crash can be as high as $2,000.
"If it's not enough encouragement to think you might contribute to a crash, the dollars can add up," Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) spokesperson Shelley Snow told Oregon's Hermiston Herald. So does the pain of potential penalties, since a third offense within 10 years comes with a fine of up to $2,500, a criminal record, and the possibility of up to six months in jail.
The new law gives Oregon the second harshest distracted driving penalties in the country involving jailtime. In Utah, if texting while driving results in an accident, the driver who caused the accident can face a license suspension and 90 days in jail. In addition to having the highest monetary penalties, Alaska can put drivers away for a year for texting using a handheld device while behind the wheel of a moving vehicle.
Carnage Caused by Distracted Driving
But even with the threat of fines and time in the slammer—and hands-free alternatives such as automaker infotainment systems, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto—US drivers' addiction to mobile devices continues unabated. And so does the carnage caused by distracted driving.
Over the past two years there's been a 14 percent rise in roadway fatalities in the US, and the largest back-to-back increase in motor vehicle–related death rates per mile driven in more than 50 years.
While statistics from the US Department of Transportation attributes only about 9 percent of traffic deaths to distracted driving in general and even less specifically to phone use, AAA's Traffic Safety Culture Index found that 88 percent of drivers believe distracted driving is on the rise, and that it beats out other risky behaviors such as aggressive driving (68 percent) and drunk (43 percent) or drugged driving (53 percent).
At the same time, the AAA survey found that the percentage of drivers who say they talk on a phone regularly or fairly often while behind the wheel jumped 46 percent since 2013, and nearly 35 percent admit sending a text or email while driving. Another recent study from AAA revealed that drivers talking on a handheld phone are up to four times as likely to crash and those who text are up to eight times as likely to be involved in a crash.
ODOT's unofficial tally of accidents so far in 2018 shows that the state has had 172 traffic fatalities—up 17.8 percent from this time last year—while 10,814 crashes occurred in Oregon between 2012 and 2016 involving a distracted driver, including 70 fatalities. "Everyone using the transportation system—drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians alike—should put away the distractions when traveling to help eliminate these tragedies," commented Troy E. Costales, ODOT's Transportation Safety Division administrator.
"Distracted driving is an epidemic in Oregon and the consequences can be deadly," he added. Hopefully the threat of higher fines and possibly spending six months in jail will be more of a deterrent to keep Oregon drivers from reaching for their phones.
It's a small price to pay for saving lives, and I applaud my home state for getting tougher on distracted driving.