Everyone stop — except you, and you, and you ...

OK, we admit it. We do it, too. We're not proud of it. We even feel guilty when we do it — a little. And we can stop any time we want to. Really.

But now we may have to, because the Oregon House voted Wednesday to make it a Class D traffic violation to drive while talking on a hand-held cell phone. The bill, HB 2377, passed the House easily and now moves to the Senate.

Should it become law? Studies have shown that talking on a cell phone is one of the most distracting things you can do while driving.

The National Safety Council in January called for a total ban on cell-phone use while driving, saying it contributes to 6 percent of crashes, or 636,000 crashes, 330,000 injuries, 12,000 serious injuries and 2,600 deaths every year, costing $43 billion. And yet, the council estimates 100 million people do it every day, and cites studies suggesting their risk of a crash is four times greater when they're on the phone.

So HB 2377 is a good idea. Just don't expect it to immediately eliminate those distracted drivers we've all seen drifting over the center line or cruising through stop signs while immersed in conversation. And don't expect it to make the roads much safer.


For starters, the bill as written has loopholes big enough to drive a semi through.

It doesn't apply to public safety officers. It doesn't apply to anyone driving an emergency vehicle such as a fire truck or an ambulance. It doesn't apply to volunteers providing emergency or public safety services. And it doesn't apply to anyone driving as part of their employment if the vehicle is necessary to their job.

That's an awful lot of people. Are people who use cell phones while driving on the job necessarily better at it than the rest of us? Police officers, firefighters and ambulance crews, maybe — they get professional driving training, after all, and they use cell phones a great deal, so they have lots of practice. But every contractor, delivery person, real estate agent or — full disclosure here — newspaper photographer? Not so much.

Then there's the tractor-trailer-sized loophole. The bill also doesn't apply to hands-free cell phones. Just pony up a few more bucks and you can chatter away without risking a ticket, if you're 18 or older.

There's just one problem. Research clearly indicates that using a hands-free device while driving is no safer. It's the cognitive distraction of the conversation, not the act of holding the phone that's dangerous.

So what's the answer?

HB 2377 is a start, but only a start. It will at least get more people thinking about the consequences of dialing and driving.

Those of a certain age can remember the days when almost no one wore seat belts — and how long it took after seat belt laws were enacted before nearly everyone did. Yet today, seat-belt usage is nearly universal.

One day, that will be true for cell-phone laws as well. But it's going to take time — and much tougher legislation.

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