Oregon House: No smoking when kids are inside the car

SALEM — The Oregon House voted Wednesday to outlaw smoking in cars when anybody 16 or younger is riding along despite some lawmakers' concerns it would burden already stretched local police departments.

Backers of the bill said the state needs to protect children from secondhand smoke — and send a message to parents to stub out their smokes before getting into a car with their kids.

"In fact, this is a form of child abuse," Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, said of those who smoke in vehicles with children on board.

The bill passed 35-25 over the objections of lawmakers who said police already have their hands full trying to catch criminals.

"There are drug mules going by and burglaries and domestic abuse going on," said Rep. Vicki Berger, R-Salem. "I want our police officers out there dealing with real crimes, not bad parenting."

Representatives of several police departments said Wednesday that while the proposed smoking ban wouldn't be all that difficult to enforce, strapped police agencies would have to keep giving top priority to avoiding serious traffic accidents and fighting major crime.

"The challenge in Eugene is our relatively low number of police officers," said police spokeswoman Melinda Kletzok. "High priority calls that involve protecting people's life and safety are going to take precedence."

Medford Police Sgt. Greg Lemhouse said police officers would have wide latitude to pull someone over if it appeared children 16 and younger were in a smoke-filled car.

"It wouldn't be difficult to enforce, but it wouldn't be our top priority," Lemhouse said. "A traffic team needs to focus on the highest priority — trying to save lives by preventing risky driving behavior."

The House bill, which now goes to the Senate, would impose a maximum $90 fine for a first offense; $180 for a second one and $360 for a third.

Four other states — Arkansas, California, Louisiana and Maine — have similar laws.

The chief sponsor of the bill, state Rep. Chuck Riley, said it is time for Oregon to join the other states because some people continue to subject children to smoking in vehicles despite the documented ill health effects of secondhand smoke.

There are no statewide statistics on how much that happens, the Hillsboro Democrat said.

"But on the freeway and on the highways, at least once a week I see kids strapped into their car seats with the vehicle full of smoke," Riley said.

During Wednesday's House debate, several lawmakers said it in some cases it would be difficult for police officers to tell whether the occupants in a vehicle are 16 or under.

Bend Police Department Sgt. Chris Carney said police officers likely would have to use a "lot of discretion" in deciding whether to pull someone over.

"Obviously, if you see a kid in a car seat and the parent smoking, that would make it a little easier," Carney said. "It would have to be a case-by-case basis."

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