Put your mobile phone down, and place your hands on the wheel.
On Wednesday, Missoula’s ban on driving or cycling with a handheld cellphone takes effect. Hands-free devices are legal for drivers, though.
“We’re cutting down on distracted driving, and a cellphone is one of the distractions in the car,” said Capt. Chris Odlin of the Missoula Police Department.
Police will pull over people for driving with a cellphone in hand, but for 60 days, they’ll only issue verbal warnings. The exception is if a driver causes a wreck while talking on a cellphone.
“My directive to them (patrol officers) has been to make it part of their normal traffic enforcement plan, basically,” Odlin said. “And I think just based on the prevalence of the violation, it shouldn’t be hard to find. So it should increase the number of traffic stops, I would imagine.”
Police aren’t going to track the number of warnings they issue, though, according to Odlin. He said police have a system that’s capable of doing so, but they had not intended to keep track.
“Right now, I can’t think of why we would care how many warnings we give. I can’t think of how we would use that statistic,” he said.
In 2009, Missoula was the first large city in Montana to consider banning drivers from using cellphones, but the effort failed. Mayor John Engen vetoed the measure because it didn’t have a hands-free provision, and all that remained was a ban on texting and driving.
Police found that one difficult to enforce the past few years because it isn’t easy to tell if a driver is texting or dialing. In the meantime, Bozeman, Butte, Billings, Great Falls, Hamilton, Havre, Helena and Whitefish put bans in place before Missoula did.
The prohibition in Great Falls started in August. In an earlier interview, Great Falls Police Sgt. Bryan Slavik said officers issued 54 warnings and no tickets the first month the ordinance was in place; in the second month, they wrote 12 tickets and 10 warnings within the first 20 days.
As with most rules, the one in Missoula has some exceptions. Drivers are off the hook if they are driving an emergency vehicle, calling for emergency reasons, operating a two-way radio for work, or have pulled over to the side of the road and stopped.
Police will start writing tickets after the initial warning period of 60 days. Councilman Dave Strohmaier, who sponsored the ordinance, included a 90-day warning period, but the ordinance language said warnings would kick off when the council approved the measure, Nov. 5. In Missoula, ordinances typically take effect 30 days after they’re adopted, so now, the warning period is 60 days.
“I think 60 days will be plenty adequate,” Strohmaier said. “There was some confusion over adoption versus the ordinance going into effect, so I think this is fine and more than what most communities seem to have done in terms of educational efforts.”
For Strohmaier, the hands-free option in a car seems like more hassle than it’s worth. He said he’ll either pull over to the side of the road, or he’ll just refrain from talking on the phone in the car.
“I am parked along the side of the road right now,” Strohmaier.
The fine for a first offense will be $100, and the fine for a second offense is $150 if it’s committed within 12 months. The minimum fine for a driver who is talking on a mobile device and gets into a wreck is $350.
The ordinance puts 50 percent of the fines collected toward public information, and Strohmaier said he will be working with the administration to “roll out a pretty robust education campaign.” The Police Department, communications office and Public Works Department also are involved in the outreach effort, according to the city, and it’s slated to be in place by Feb. 5 when patrol officers are free to write citations.
Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, email@example.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.