"These are people who are struggling and their livings are made by whether or not they can pick folks up... This is their life."
? Sen. Larry George, the bill's sponsor
The Oregon legislature made a strange move on Monday that is very likely to make Portland roads less safe for everyone. By a vote of 19-11, the Senate passed a bill that adds yet another exception to the state's existing cell phone law. Senate Bill 294, sponsored by Senator Larry George (R-Sherwood), allows a taxicab driver to use a "mobile communication device", a.k.a. cell phone, while driving.
This is despite widespread evidence that using a cell phone while driving is very dangerous.
SB 294's sponsor, Sen. Larry George (yes that Senator) got all 14 of his fellow Republicans to join him in supporting the taxicab exemption. The five Democrats who voted in favor of the bill included; Lee Beyer, Chris Edwards, Betsy Johnson, Ernie Roblan, and Chip Shields.
If this bill is passed by the House and signed by the Governor, it would be added to the already long list of specific usage exemptions to the state's existing cell phone law. ORS 811.507 provides exemptions to police officers, public safety workers, farm equipment operators, transit workers, public utility workers, tow truck operators, HAM radio operators, and more.
Sen. George, speaking on behalf of his bill in the Senate Chamber today, sought to paint a personal picture of taxicab operators, saying they are facing increasing pressure to make ends meet. "There's probably not a harder working group of folks than taxi drivers," he said, "Every single lead is vital to them." Here's more from George's floor remarks:
"These are people who are struggling and their livings are made by whether or not they can pick folks up... This is their life. If we can give them a little bit of flexibility to put a little more money in their pockets to take home with their families, than we should do that."
Sen. Lee Beyer (D-Springfield) said he sees no difference between taxicab drivers and police officers. "Which is more dangerous, a police officer going down the road typing number in his computer, or a cab driver sitting at the curb calling his base station ans saying, 'I've picked up this fare and I'm taking them to this hotel'?" Beyer also said he didn't think there was a safety difference between a taxi driver talking into a hands-free speaker device (like the old CB radios) and using a cell phone. "I recognize the concerns people have about safety; but I think this is just a matter of what's been going on for years, long before cell phones were ever created. Nothing has really changed here."
"They've got anxious passengers in the back seat... I worry about the safety and their attention to the road. I'm very concerned about expanding the exemptions to this law."
? Sen. Elizabeth Steiner-Hayward during her floor remarks
Senators in favor of the bill also spoke to the fact that taxicab drivers are "well-trained and high-regulated professionals."
It's not clear whether Sen. Beyer understands the bill. It does not require taxicab operators to pull over and the law already allows hands-free devices. To be clear, SB 294 would allow cabbies to hold a cell phone up to their ear and have a conversation while driving.
Three lawmakers spoke against SB 294 on Monday.
Sen. Elizabeth Steiner-Hayward (D-NW Portland/Beaverton) said, "There is no question that using cell phones interferes with safety." Sen. Steiner-Hayward added that she felt taxicab drivers don't know their way around as well as police officers or utility workers and that they work in an even more distracted environment. "They've got anxious passengers in the back seat," she said. "I've been in cabs in Portland and even when they are using bluetooth devices I worry about the safety and their attention to the road. I'm very concerned about expanding the exemptions to this law."
Sen. Rod Monroe (D-Portland) also spoke to the dangers of distracted driving and questioned why taxicab operators couldn't simply use hands-free devices. "I say if taxicab drivers don't have a handsfree device, they can do what I do. When my cell phone buzzes and I want to answer it, I pull over and stop. If the taxicab driver wants to answer his phone, he can pull over and stop."
SB 294 will now head over to the House where it has yet to be assigned to a committee.
? For more on the taxi drivers' perspective, check out this ride-along I did back in 2009 with a Radio Cab driver.