An estimated 2,600 people die in America each year as a result of drivers being distracted by using cell phones. This summer, 16-year-old Forrest Cepeda of Bend apparently became one of them.
Police say Cepeda and a friend were biking along Reed Market Road on July 25 when he was struck by a pickup truck driven by Erik Conn, 28, of LaPine. According to police, Conn was trying to slow the pickup - which was towing a trailer - to avoid hitting a vehicle in front of him when he lost control and slid across the narrow shoulder into the path of the two boys.
Cepeda's friend managed to leap out of the way. Cepeda wasn't quick enough, or lucky enough. He was dead at the scene.
Search warrants indicate two text messages were sent from Conn's cell phone just before Cepeda was hit. One of them was to a 28-year-old woman who was sitting in the truck right next to Conn; the other was to another women. Conn evidently is a real hard-core texter - records show he sent 30 messages the day of the fatal accident, including seven in a period of just over an hour before it.
Police have seized Conn's truck and cell phone, as well as the cell phones belonging to the two women he texted just before the accident. Although he hasn't been charged with any crime yet, a police affidavit indicates Conn could face charges of reckless driving, manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide - none of which will bring much comfort to the family of Forrest Cepeda.
Oregon has had a law against texting or talking on a cell phone while driving since 2009. However, that law included a get-out-of-jail-free card for violators: Drivers were allowed to use their cell phones for work-related calls. Police, knowing that offenders probably would have the charge thrown out simply by testifying they were using their cells for work, were reluctant to write tickets.
This year, fortunately, the legislature passed and Gov. John Kitzhaber signed a new, tougher anti-cell phone law. The "I was using my phone for work" excuse is gone; all cell phone use while driving is now illegal, except for certain public service workers.
But the fine for talking or texting while driving remains ridiculously small: only $142, plus court costs. Studies have shown that a driver using a cell phone is as seriously impaired as one who's legally drunk - and that's true even if he's using a hands-free device. The penalties for driving while distracted by a cell phone should be commensurate with those for DUI, including suspension and eventually loss of license.
A bill providing for suspension of the licenses of drivers caught using cell phones was introduced in 2009 but died in the House. Here's hoping a similar measure will make it into law in the next session of the legislature.
In the meantime, here's THE BOOT for everybody out there who's still stupid and/or irresponsible enough to gab or text while driving. Either get shut up or get off the road. There is no excuse.