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Driver's choice: Hands-free phone or hassle

 Posted: 2:00 AM June 25, 2009

Realtor Rob Skinner of Ashland makes many of his business calls on his hand-held cell phone while driving between appointments.

"I go back and forth from Ashland to Central Point to the Medford area," Skinner said. "I can get so much done on the phone on the way."

On Jan. 1, Skinner's daily phone-call routine will be illegal, unless he uses a hands-free device.

State lawmakers on Wednesday gave final approval to a bill outlawing the use of hand-held cell phones while operating a motor vehicle, making Oregon the sixth state to do so. Gov. Ted Kulongoski is expected to sign the bill in the next few weeks.

"I think it's actually a good thing," said Lindsay Shores of Eagle Point, shortly after pulling into the parking lot at the Southside Center at East Stewart Avenue and Highway 99 while chatting on her phone. "The distraction of conversation can actually cause an accident.

"I try not to talk on my cell phone while driving, but sometimes if I am close by where I need to be I answer."

The new Oregon law will impose a maximum $90 fine on drivers caught texting or talking on a hand-held cell phone. It does not apply to drivers using a cell phone equipped with a hands-free device and those working in public safety.

"I have a headset, but I don't often use it," Skinner said.

But he acknowledged the ban is prudent.

"It's just so convenient to just grab the phone," he said. "When you pull up to an intersection, you see everyone just talking away."

California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, New Jersey, New York and Washington state already have statewide bans on use of hand-held cell phones while driving, and some countries such as Australia have nationwide bans. Using hand-held cell phones on commutes also is illegal in the Virgin Islands, and some U.S. corporations have prohibited their employees from using hand-held cell phones while driving on the job.

Medford salesman Carlo Castillo said his company prohibits employees from using hand-held cell phones while driving on the job, but sometimes, when he forgets to hook up his cell phone to the hands-free device, he answers the phone on the road.

"I am on the phone all the time for my job," Castillo said.

About 81 percent of the nation's cell-phone users sometimes talk and drive, according to a 2008 survey by Nationwide Insurance.

Supporters of the bill, however, have said the convenience of talking on the phone and driving isn't worth the cost.

Nationwide, traffic accidents involving drivers talking on cell phones cause about 2,600 deaths a year and 330,000 injuries, according to a study by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

The measure, co-authored by state Reps. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, and Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie, is House Bill 2377.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.


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