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Loophole discovered in Oregon's new distracted driving law

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KATU has discovered a potentially major loophole in Oregon's new distracted driving law while looking into concerns from Uber and Lyft drivers.

The measure brings stiffer penalties in the hopes of getting people to focus on driving, not distractions.

Right now in Oregon it's illegal to hold your phone while driving only if you're talking or texting at the time.

But as of Oct. 1, when the law goes into effect, you won't be allowed to hold your phone or electronic device at all behind the wheel.

If you're not holding it, however, and you just touch or swipe it, it's a different story.

"When you're driving there are times that you have to click," Kazzrie Hecahti, who places her phone on a mount attached to her car's air vents while at the wheel, told KATU on Monday.

She started driving for Uber and Lyft in Portland more than two years ago and she sits on the leadership committee for The Drivers Collective PDX, a ride-hailing driver advocacy group.

"In my experience as a driver the police have been very friendly in my direction," Hecahti said.

But after learning about the new distracted driving law, Hecahti and other drivers like her told KATU they had concerns.

They were particularly worried about the wording on a "fact sheet" about the law from the state.

It says"it is illegal to drive while holding or using an electronic device" that isn't hands-free or "built-in" unless you're deactivating or activating the device.

Hecahti said drivers frequently have to touch phones behind the wheel because that's often when they get requests for service.

"If you don't tap it, it's a 'ding' on you," Hecahti explained. "You have 15 seconds (until) it goes to the next driver. ... It counts against you or what they call your 'acceptance rating.'"

After KATU asked Uber and Lyft about it, both companies said they and their drivers will safely follow the rules.

A Lyft spokesman cited a part of the actual text of the new law naming multiple exceptions including one that says it does not apply to a "person who activates or deactivates a mobile electronic device or a function of the device."

That allayed Hecahti's professional concerns although she said she still wishes it were clearer.

"If there's a loophole that drivers can get through if you can tap and swipe, anybody can tap and swipe," Hecahti said.

KATU asked Sgt. Michael Berland, an Oregon State Police spokesman, about the loophole.

He admitted the term "function of the device" is not defined by the law.

"With that being such a wide and just a general, generic term of just 'function,' I think that would rely on the trooper (or officer) on scene to figure out if the function of the phone is appropriate within the spirit of the bill," Berland said.

Of course with no clear definition of the term "function of the device" in the law it also potentially opens up several ways to get a ticket thrown out in court.

Also hands-free accessories for phones or electronic devices don't just have to be "built in."

The law says, "'Hands-free accessory' means an attachment or built-in feature for or an addition to a mobile (communication) electronic device (, whether or not permanently installed in a motor vehicle,) that when used gives a person the ability to keep both hands on the steering wheel."

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