Anyone care about a law that would ban talking on a cellphone and driving at the same time?
You might want to hang up and ... call a councilor.
Only two members of the public showed up Wednesday for a Missoula City Council committee meeting on taking another stab at such an ordinance. And several councilors, including the Public Safety and Health Committee chairman, noted the lack of participation.
“I’m a little miffed about that,” said Chairman Jon Wilkins, who runs the meetings.
Ready or not, though, Councilman Dave Strohmaier said he plans to bring some new ideas for an updated ordinance based on successful work in other communities. And Councilman Wilkins said he’d like to have a public hearing on some form of a cellphone and driving ban as early as the end of May if possible.
“I think the cellphone usage is out of control in Missoula, and I think it’s just going to get worse,” Wilkins said.
In general, Wilkins said he isn’t keen on rules for bad behavior, but he’s seen way too many people yakking and swerving. The ordinance on the books in Missoula only bans texting while driving, and Missoula Police Department Chief Mark Muir updated councilors on its status.
When the council passed that law three years ago, it did prohibit the use of talking on cellphones while driving, but it didn’t include an exception for hands-free devices, so Mayor John Engen vetoed part of the ordinance. All that remained was the prohibition on texting and driving.
“There have been a significant number of changes around the country and the state of Montana since Missoula has undertaken to pass our no-texting-while-driving ordinance,” said Muir, who noted that April happens to be National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.
It’s hard to tell if someone is texting or dialing, and police have issued just 12 citations since the law took effect, Muir said. A motorcycle cop wrote half of those because from his vantage point on the bike, it was easier to look down at a driver and see that the motorist was, in fact, texting.
Around the country, there seems to be an “enhanced awareness” of national research pointing to the dangers of distracted driving. They go far beyond cellphones, too, Muir said. They include everything from putting on makeup to watching an event outside the car to tending to children to changing a CD to even singing along to music and talking to a passenger.
In the U.S., 36 states have banned texting while driving, he said; 10 have banned the use of cellphones while driving. And in Montana, six other communities adopted their own local bans that are more restrictive than Missoula’s.
But every one of them allows people to use earpieces or hands-free equipment instead, he said. And a couple of councilors pointed out that if the earlier ordinance had included such an exemption, Missoula likely would already have a cellphone ban in place.
In general, the laws on the books also make exceptions for public safety. Muir, though, said if Missoula adopts a ban, he’ll want to outfit patrol cars with hands-free equipment so police officers aren’t sending the “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” message.
“It would certainly be easier to enforce a ban on handheld cellphones than it would be to enforce a ban on texting,” Muir said.
It’s not, of course, going to be popular with everyone. Councilman Adam Hertz, for instance, said if people want to ban themselves from certain risky behaviors, he suggests they do it via a vote at the ballot box. He doesn’t want to play that role.
“I’m not necessarily in the business of legislating common sense,” Hertz said.
Strohmaier, though, who is bringing the idea for an update forward, said he believes in the power of the law as a deterrent. If someone gets a ticket, that person might think twice the second time around – just as he’ll think twice about rolling through a stop sign at Spruce Street and Madison Avenue, he said.
Already, Strohmaier’s mind was on how enforcement and education might come about in the future.
“How are we going to sign it? How are we going to educate the public?”
Signs are important, Muir said, and the only member of the public who spoke at that meeting said education is, too.
Brandy Snider, a Lambros Realtor, offered to help police on any education campaigns, but she said she doesn’t support a ban on talking on cellphones while driving. That behavior is just one in a long list of troublesome activities behind the wheel.
“I’m telling you, the smokers are the ones that drive me nuts,” Snider told the chief.
Wilkins said he’ll keep the agenda item open for upcoming committee meetings on Wednesdays, and Strohmaier encouraged people to contact councilors or to comment at the regular 7 p.m. Monday meetings in Council Chambers.
Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, firstname.lastname@example.org or on MissoulaRedTape.com.