It’ll cost you a Ben Franklin, maybe more.
Missoula’s ban on driving with a cellphone in hand goes into full effect Tuesday, Feb. 5, and the penalty if you get caught is at least $100, possibly as high as $300. Busted a second time in the same year? You’re out $150, at least, and maybe as much as $500.
But guess what? You have options to get around it. The workarounds run from free to cheap to get-me-a-sugar-momma.
So far, the ban has been in its educational phase, where police issue warnings instead of citations. Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir said officers handed out 28 warnings in the month of December, and as daylight increases, he anticipates the number of tickets will go up.
“It won’t surprise me to see us issue maybe a couple hundred a month,” Muir said.
Councilman Dave Strohmaier, who pushed the ban for years, often walks downtown, and he hasn’t seen a perceptible drop in the number of people talking on their phones and driving in the initial phase of the prohibition.
“I continue to see folks pulling bonehead maneuvers downtown while turning corners talking on a cellphone or sitting at stoplights downtown,” Strohmaier said. “So my hope would be, come Tuesday, with the opportunity to send a little stronger message to people, we might see a significant reduction.”
A recent observational survey of some 10,000 cars showed an estimated 5 percent of drivers on handheld cellphones, according to the police chief. The department will use the number as a benchmark for a similar study in one year.
Here are ways you can steer clear of a ticket.
Here’s something to consider: You don’t have to answer your phone in the car. Yes, multiple sources confirm that’s the case.
Here’s another way to avoid a ticket: Pull over to the side of the road.
The Missoulian left a voicemail for city traffic services engineer Wayne Gravatt, and Gravatt returned the call just moments later.
“I had to pull over in accordance with the cellphone (regulation), so isn’t that ironic?” Gravatt said. “Before we put in this ordinance, I – probably wrongly – would just pick up my phone and answer it. Now, I have to wait, as I should.”
To let drivers know about the ban, Gravatt and his crew were posting nine signs at various entry points to city limits. One is up near the Buckhouse Bridge, a couple are on either end of Broadway, the Interstate 90 interchanges have them, one is on Reserve Street, one is on Grant Creek Road and one is on Mullan Road.
“We just thought it was really important to make sure we had the signs in before they started ticketing,” Gravatt said.
If you don’t want to pull over, you have another free option, at least if you already own earbuds. You may plug your earbuds into your phone, pop one in an ear, and put your phone on speaker.
It isn’t likely you’ll be stopped by a police officer, but it might not be advisable, either. Chief Muir said a person legally talking on their cellphone and using an earbud probably did violate the ordinance at some point in handling their phone, and the larger problem is distracted driving.
Fines from the ordinance will be used to educate the public about overall risks, he said: “We’re optimistic we’ll be able to put that money to good use if it comes in.”
City communications director Ginny Merriam said a couple of lit billboards are posted, one on Interstate 90 where commuters from places like Grant Creek and the Ninemile will be able to see it, and another at Brooks Street near Livingston Street. Transit ads will be on Mountain Line buses, too.
2. Economic to more spendy
“There’s lots of affordable options as far as hands-free devices go,” said Craig Burns, Wireless Connection store manager.
With the ban in place and nearly in full effect, he said customers have been walking in the door of the Southgate Mall shop and asking about their options. At the lower end, he said, gadgets start around $40, and at the more moderate and pricey levels, they climb to $100, $150, depending on the sound quality.
A popular one on the lower end is a Plantronics M25, he said. It’s roughly $40, and it has a “really good headset, good sound quality.”
Some options don’t go into your ear.
“There’s also ones you can sell that just clip right on your visor so that way it’s not something that’s in your ear,” Burns said.
One that’s been popular is the Jabra Extreme II, and it’s $130.
Most phones on the market are compatible with any of the devices, Burns said, or they’re “Bluetooth capable.”
In the past, sales people had to bring the hands-free devices to the attention of customers, he said. Now, people are asking about them.
3. As part of a new car
Of course, you’re not going to go out and buy a whole new car to comply with the ban.
But if you’re in the market for brand-new wheels already, chances are your car will have a hands-free feature already installed. If you live in western Montana, you might be looking for a Subaru, and indeed, those cars have hands free covered.
“Overall, it’s very well received, and people are usually very surprised at how easy it is to use,” said Jessica Dominic, general manager for Kendall 4 Seasons Subaru in Missoula.
The driver’s phone gets “paired” with the car, and getting them in sync takes a minute or two: “When you get into your car and turn your car on, the Bluetooth in your cellphone and the Bluetooth in the car recognize each other,” Dominic said. “So they link up every time you get into the car.”
If someone calls, the call comes through your stereo system. Want to pick up? You don’t have to take your hands off the wheel.
“There’s a little button on the steering wheel. It looks like a little phone where you can answer the phone or hang up your call,” Dominic said.
The feature has become more and more prevalent over the years, and Dominic said she’s surprised it took Missoula so long to ban drivers from using cellphones.
“It’s just a safety feature to not talk on your phone,” Dominic said.