Local law enforcement officers say distracted driving violations are not a priority, few cited in Columbia County

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO ILLUSTRATION - Using a cell phone while driving is a primary example of distracted driving, but is one of many risky behaviors drivers can exhibit. Law enforcement said citing people for cell phone use is not a top priority in the county.While statewide efforts to crackdown on distracted driving have been the primary focus of regulatory agencies for several months, local law enforcement say it’s simply not a priority for them.

Throughout April and May, Oregon State Police and other law enforcement agencies, in coordination with the Oregon Department of Transportation, conducted multiple distracted driving patrols on major highways in Marion, Jefferson, Crook and Deschutes counties.

The patrols yielded high numbers of citations for speeding, followed by seat belt violations and use of cell phones.

In March, ODOT also commissioned a study at Southern Oregon University that involved surveying students about their attitudes and perceptions of distracted driving.

The study results showed 75 percent of those surveyed admitted to distracted driving while alone, and 44 percent drove distracted with passengers in the vehicle.

Despite the increased effort to reinforce safe driving behaviors in the state, local law enforcement said distracted driving in Columbia County simply isn’t an enforcement priority for their thinly staffed departments.

With a total of three law enforcement officers on duty at any time for the Scappoose and St. Helens police departments, citing drivers for using cell phones or other distracted driving behaviors on the roadways often falls by the wayside when higher priority calls come in.

“It’s tough for us to make it a priority,” St. Helens Police Chief Terry Moss said. “If an officer is responding to a shoplifting call at Walmart and someone is going by on their cell phone, they’re not going to stop them.”

Data from Oregon State Police show that 18 drivers in the county were issued citations for driving while using a cell phone so far this year. In 2015, 54 citations were issued.

As of May, the Scappoose Police Department had issued seven citations for using a cell phone while driving and the St. Helens Police Department had only issued one ticket in 2016, according to police logs.

Those citations amount for less than 1 percent of traffic stops in Scappoose and less than half a percent of traffic stops in St. Helens so far this year.

The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office does not keep track of those citations.

Call volume by local agencies in 2016Despite the low numbers of citations locally, distracted driving — defined as any activity that diverts someone’s attention away from driving — remains highly dangerous. In 2014, more than 3,170 people were killed and 431,000 were injured in distracted driving accidents, according to the United States Department of Transportation.

Moss explained that citation numbers could be low for two reasons. Primarily, when law enforcement agencies only have one to two officers on duty, there simply isn’t time for officers to devote solely to traffic enforcement.

“Traffic enforcement for us is what we call a discretionary activity, meaning when officers have time and they’re not responding to calls for service, then they’ll work traffic,” Moss said.

Secondarily, when officers issue warnings instead of tickets, it can more effectively educate drivers about poor behaviors, Moss added. He estimates that one-third of traffic stops by officers in the county actually result in tickets for breaking driving laws, something that remains at the discretion of each officer.

Records show that traffic stops only account for 20 percent of St. Helens’ call volume on average, while traffic stops account for 35 percent in Scappoose.

Scappoose Chief Norm Miller believes the number is skewed because Scappoose receives more traffic than St. Helens on average.

“We have a lot of traffic in Scappoose. Everyone has to drive through Scappoose to get to the rest of Columbia County,” Miller said.

With more people driving through the city, Scappoose police are conducting more traffic stops by volume, not necessarily issuing more tickets, Miller said. Of those drivers being pulled over, Miller said he sees a broad range of violations, from speeding to improper lane change to running through street lights, not just distracted drivers using cell phones.

While Moss said the police department would like to do more to reinforce safe driving practices, law enforcement agencies in the county have found some relief in the Columbia County Traffic Safety Commission, a groups with roots dating back to the 1970s that helps promote safe driving messages.

The commission is made up of a group of local stakeholders, politicians, law enforcement, ODOT representatives and community members who meet once a month to develop legislative propositions and local campaigns and slogans to promote safe driving. Their latest campaign on social media touts the phrase, “One text could wreck it all.”

Commission secretary Lynn Chiotti said the commission works to fill the gap that is left by law enforcement.

Hunter Uselton, a junior at St. Helens High School and a new member on the commission, said he wants to prevent new drivers from getting in the habit of driving distracted by a variety of factors, including cell phone use.

“The overall message definitely is, driving is a lot more involved than people give it credit for,” Uselton said. “The thing I see the most, whenever you have a crash or you have distracted driving it’s people not taking the act of driving — [which is] going down the asphalt in a metal box at 60 miles an hour — as seriously as they should.”

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