New year, new laws

We've all heard the jokes about government sticking its nose where it doesn't belong, passing silly laws and generally making things worse rather than better. But for every citizen griping about the latest affront by politicians, there is at least one saying, "there ought to be a law ..."

There are hundreds, actually, taking effect Friday with the new year. And some of them make a great deal of sense.

Judging by the letters to this newspaper complaining about drivers distracted by cell phones, one new law should be welcomed by many. Starting Jan. 1, using a hand-held cell phone while driving under most circumstances can bring a $142 ticket.

The law isn't perfect. It has too many exceptions, such as using a cell phone in the course of employment. And it still allows drivers to use a hands-free device to talk on the phone while piloting thousands of pounds of metal down the road. Studies have suggested that hands-free conversations are every bit as distracting to drivers.

Still, it's a start. And outlawing hand-held phones will make it illegal to send text messages while driving, something that every sane Oregonian should applaud.

Oregon's law is tougher than in many states because it is a primary infraction, meaning an officer can pull you over for cell phone use alone.

In the best of all possible worlds, lawmakers wouldn't have to outlaw dialing and driving. People would be sensible enough to refrain from behavior that could injure or kill themselves or others.

In the real world, too many people aren't that sensible. So government must act — not to protect them from themselves, but to prevent them from endangering everyone else.

That's the idea behind another law taking effect as 2010 begins: tougher fines for drivers who are not just impaired by alcohol but well over the legal limit. A blood alcohol content of .15 — almost twice the limit of .08 — will bring a mandatory $2,000 fine. That's twice the fine for a first offense with a BAC of .08 to .15.

Statistics show half of the 25,000 people arrested for drunken driving in Oregon every year have a blood alcohol level of .16 or above.

The tougher law takes effect at 12:01 a.m. on New Year's Day, so the last party of 2009 could be an expensive one for some revelers.

Two more new laws we'll mention don't involve driving, but are also welcome additions.

Tossing computers, monitors and television sets in the trash will be illegal starting Friday. All must be recycled to prevent hazardous substances from harming the environment. The good news is, recycling is free by law, and more than a dozen centers in Jackson County will accept the old equipment.

Finally, anyone selling scrap metal after Jan. 1 without a permit from the state will face a fine of up to $1,250 or as many as 30 days in jail. That sounds harsh, but thefts of scrap metal from construction sites, utility companies and other places have been an increasing problem across Oregon in recent years, which winds up costing everyone money in the long run.

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