Taking aim at distracted motorists, an Oregon House panel has advanced a bill to prohibit people from texting or talking on hand-held cell phones while driving.

By Brad Cain

The Associated Press

SALEM — Taking aim at distracted motorists, an Oregon House panel has advanced a bill to prohibit people from texting or talking on hand-held cell phones while driving.

The measure was endorsed Monday by the House Transportation Committee after sponsors said drivers chatting on hand-held cell phones are a menace to themselves and others on the road.

Now headed to the full House for debate, the bill expands on a law passed by the 2007 Legislature that made it illegal for teenagers to use cell phones and drive.

But the 2007 law said police could ticket teens only if they had been stopped for another traffic violation. So it was a "secondary offense," one that has resulted in few citations being issued around the state because local police agencies say it's difficult to enforce.

The House bill would make it a primary offense, and provide that drivers of any age seen using a hand-held cell phone can be ticketed and punished with a maximum fine of $90.

Five other states prohibit using hand-held cell phones while driving.

Oregon State Police Sgt. Alan Hageman said although the agency is neutral on the specific bill, cell phone use in vehicles is on the rise and so is distracted driving. "We've see people's cars become their offices and their living rooms," Hageman said.

And unlike the 2007 teen cell phone law, the House bill ban wouldn't be difficult to enforce because it applies to drivers of all ages and doesn't require a secondary, or accompanying offense, to pull someone over for taking on the phone, he said.

The new legislation does not apply to drivers using a cell phone equipped with a handsfree device. It also has exceptions for drivers working in public safety, one-way radio operators and others who need to use a cell phone, briefly, for work such as utility lineman, said state Rep. Carolyn Tomei, co-sponsor of the bill.

The Milwaukie Democrat said she thinks there's "overwhelming" public support for her bill because more people have observed reckless or distracted driving by people talking on their phones.

One member of House panel who voted "no" said the bill doesn't really tackle the problem of distracted driving because it still allows people to drive while using a handsfree device for a phone conversation.

"If cell phone use is a problem, then we need to go whole hog here," said Rep. Vicki Berger, R-Salem. "Who you're talking to, and the tenor of that phone conversation, has a huge amount to do with your distractibility."