Missoula last major Montana city without cellphone ban

2012-10-07T08:30:00Z 2012-11-05T21:04:44Z Missoula last major Montana city without cellphone banBy KEILA SZPALLER of the Missoulian missoulian.com
October 07, 2012 8:30 am  • 

Missoula is so far behind, it might just be a step ahead.

In 2009, Missoula was the first large city in Montana to consider banning drivers from using cellphones. The effort failed.

Now, Butte, Billings, Great Falls, Whitefish, Havre, Hamilton, Bozeman and Helena all have bans in place, and the Missoula city councilman proposing the ordinance yet again wants his bill signed and sealed.

“We have been eclipsed by all the other major cities in Montana sans Kalispell, and it seems like, OK, it’s time to get with the program here,” said Councilman Dave Strohmaier. “Let’s take another run at this.”

The council will hold a public hearing Oct. 22 on the proposal to prohibit use of cellphones behind the wheel – with an exception for hands-free devices. This new version also has officers writing only warnings for the first 90 days the ordinance is in place.

One reason Strohmaier is bringing up the ban again is that new councilors have been seated since 2009. Whether they support this second attempt or not, Missoula now has the benefit of being able to look to other cities as models and to national trends.

Other ordinances in Montana that push drivers to hang up and drive appear to be working well, according to law enforcement officers in those communities, but they and federal recommendations note the recipe for success must include energetic enforcement and outreach, too.


Billings adopted its law in 2010, said Billings Police Lt. Kevin Iffland. More people are complying with the law this year than when it first went into effect, but so far in 2012, police still have written some 756 tickets – half citations and half warnings.

If Missoula adopts a similar ordinance, Iffland believes it will see a similar pattern: “They’re going to see a very high noncompliance rate when it first starts out. So it’s going to take public education, getting that word out there.”

Iffland equates bans against drivers using cellphones to the mandates that people buckle up. Educating the public is paramount, he said, and until social norms shift, some drivers will continue to flout the law. In Billings, those who do risk a $110 fine for a first offense, although a judge can increase the amount, Iffland said.

Great Falls has a ban in place, too, but it’s brand new. Great Falls Sgt. Bryan Slavik said its ordinance was put in place in August, and police started writing tickets last month.

“It’s been very positive,” Slavik said. “We’ve certainly looked forward to it. There’s only a certain amount of things that law enforcement can regulate, but that’s certainly one of them.”

Like the one in Billings and the current proposal in Missoula, the Great Falls regulation exempts drivers who are talking with hands-free devices, such as Bluetooths or ones built into the features of a car.

Controversy around that provision sunk the earlier attempt in Missoula to outlaw cellphones behind the wheel. The council adopted an ordinance without an exemption for hands-free devices, so Mayor John Engen vetoed most of the bill, and all that was left was a difficult-to-enforce ban against texting while driving.

Engen continues to support the use of hands-free devices, and Slavik said it’d be difficult to successfully argue to nix them: “I don’t think you want to (fight) that battle, and I don’t think you can win that battle.”

In August, Great Falls police issued 54 warnings and no tickets, he said. In the first 20 days of September, the cops wrote 12 tickets and 10 warnings, he said.

Officer discretion is a large part of implementing the ordinance, Slavik said. A driver who is texting and almost causes a wreck will get a ticket at a $100 minimum, but someone who is just talking on the phone might get a warning instead.

Not answering a phone is a hard habit to break, even for police, but Great Falls largely supported the ordinance, Slavik said: “By far and away, the majority of people were for it.”

Helena, too, has a ban in place, and Chief Troy McGee said it modeled its ordinance on the one Missoula first considered in 2009. Since January, police have written 316 citations, and anecdotally, he believes the law and corresponding publicity have had an effect.

“Just from discussions with the officers, they believe that they see fewer citizens actually talking on cellphones,” McGee said. “Texting is another issue.”

That’s because it’s hard to tell if someone is texting, he said.

That’s not news to Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir. Since 2009 when Missoula banned texting behind the wheel, officers have written just 27 tickets, he said; roughly 20 percent are still pending in court.


As currently written, the draft Missoula ordinance should be much easier to enforce than the texting ban, Muir said. He supports the effort because it’s one step toward dealing with distracted driving – and one growing distraction in particular.

“I think the same number of people today probably eat fast food in their car that ate fast food in their car five years ago, for example,” Muir said. “But I would say that that’s not true with cellphones, in that we have a very rapidly expanding base of the population that is now cellphone-connected.”

If the ordinance passes, Muir said he’s going to instruct his officers to write as many warnings as possible the first 90 days, the educational period. The idea is if drivers learn that they will be caught, they will change their behaviors.

“I hope that people get the message of the dangers that are involved in this,” said Muir, who wants to hand out informational postcards and even do outreach in the schools. “And the way that I think we’ll accomplish this is by expanding the education and publicity about the law to include other forms of distracted driving.”

The Missoula Police Department doesn’t compile data on the number of wrecks that involve a driver on a cellphone, but it provides information to the state. According to data from a 2011 Montana Department of Transportation report, though, cellphone use is one of many problems: “Inattentive driving, careless driving and/or cellphone use were listed 45 percent of the time when a driver’s hazardous action is noted as a contributing circumstance in a crash.”

It also says this: “Inattentive driving is the major contributing circumstance in crashes.” The report says “inattentive driving” is highly subjective, but it accounts for 23 percent of the “contributing circumstances” in crashes. Being “inattentive” includes eating, smoking, adjusting radio controls and talking on a cellphone.

“Cellphone use was admitted to as a contributor in 97 crashes (in 2009) and was likely a distraction in many more,” reads the report; 97 crashes are an estimated 1 percent of the total investigated that year.

According to the Montana Highway Patrol, the use of a cellphone or electronic device was a “contributing circumstance” in five traffic fatalities in 2011.


This summer, the U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a “Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving” in order to “address the growing and dangerous practice of using handheld cellphones behind the wheel.”

The agency noted that as of June, 39 states and the District of Columbia had enacted statewide texting bans, and 10 states and D.C. prohibit all hand-held cellphone use while driving. The Blueprint doesn’t include recommendations on the use of hands-free devices.

“NHTSA is currently analyzing data from a naturalistic driving study designed to examine differences between hand-held, hands-free and integrated hands-free cellphone use,” reads the report. “The findings are expected to be completed by the end of 2012.”

Last December, though, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended banning all use of portable electronic devices behind the wheel – including hands-free options.

Hands-free devices are a hot button in Missoula because some councilors point to studies showing driver distractions are the problem regardless of device – and Bluetooths, for instance, only give people the illusion of being safer.

Councilman Strohmaier admits he’s seen studies that indicate there’s no significant difference between a hand-held and hands-free device, but he believes it’s high time to give the ordinance another shot. It’s a compromise that will improve safety and, he believes, make the texting ban easier to enforce.

“I think the safety hazard associated with driving while using an electronic communication device has not diminished,” Strohmaier said.

Here are the main provisions:

• It “prohibits the use of hand-held electronic devices while operating a motor vehicle or bicycle.”

• It includes exceptions for the following: Emergency responders, those reporting an emergency, commercial drivers using two-way radios and licensed amateur radio operators using two-way radios.

• It also has an exemption for drivers who have pulled out of a traffic lane and taken their cars out of gear.

• The ordinance allows for the use of hands-free electronic communication devices.

• The minimum fine for a first offense is $100, and it may not be suspended or waived up to $300.

• For the first 90 days after adoption, police may issue only warnings unless a cellphone was being used during a crash. “This 90-day delay will allow for implementation of an educational program and installation of signage to alert the public to the amended ordinance.”

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

Copyright 2015 missoulian.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(26) Comments

  1. stalker
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    stalker - October 13, 2012 9:52 am
    As nice as "personal responsibility" sounds the reality is far removed from that ideal. While people have proven that there is not a whole lot that will deter them from making the wrong decisions that does not mean that this proposal (or any law for that matter) is unnecessary. If you consider this to be simply a "money grab", don't break the law and it won't be your money they're grabbing! I have recently read studies which prove conclusively that people are not as proficient at multi-tasking as they believe they are. Yes, people are doing many things at the same time but they are doing them haphazardly and with huge degrees of inaccuracy. The distractions caused by these devices have an impact on every facet of our daily lives. There is no reason that we should allow them to be used while driving, even with the assistance of hands free devices.
  2. madtaxpayer
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    madtaxpayer - October 08, 2012 1:20 pm
    Nope, I see far more idiots on phones than anything else. they stop for no reason, they go 25mph in a 45 mph zone (or 90 mph on the freeway!), they drive though red lights, don't use turn signals, swerve into my lane, and all of these happened while I watched them trying to text or talk on their phones!!!

    We never had problems until we had cell phones. period.
  3. madtaxpayer
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    madtaxpayer - October 08, 2012 1:18 pm
    I don't have to dial my sandwich. Nice try.
  4. madtaxpayer
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    madtaxpayer - October 08, 2012 1:17 pm
    people in this town are too stupid, they need to be babysat. Go to WA state, they drive better than we do now because of the cell ban. Missoula is an embarrassment.
  5. madtaxpayer
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    madtaxpayer - October 08, 2012 1:14 pm
    Excuse me Walter, but although I agree about the teen girls, I also want to point out that I see far more ADULT men on cel phones than young teen girls! they not only are unable to do two things at once (something men cannot accomplish) they are also driving commercial vehicles while talking on the phone, which is federally illegal and will get them a $2500 fine. So don't put all the blame on teens. In fact I was behind an elderly woman who actually stopped in the middle of traffic at a green light, to dig her cel out of her purse! Adults are just as irresponsible with cel phones as teens are!!

    It's quite immature of everyone. sad that we used to be able to drive without a phone, and now we can't. how did we ever survive??? It's sickening and I for one am ready to see them go away. I can live without them.
  6. mtmike
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    mtmike - October 08, 2012 12:45 am
    Sad but true.
  7. mtmike
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    mtmike - October 08, 2012 12:43 am
    80 per cent of the time, yes.
  8. sportscaster
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    sportscaster - October 07, 2012 7:30 pm
    I would like to know o\if the cities that have this ordinance or one like it can tell us if accidents due to distracted driving of all sorts - not just involving cell phones - have actually been reduced because of it. Not counting Missoula, of course, because our police don't keep track of anything that might make them look bad. And please, make sure if you pass this ordinance that it applies to people on bicycles as well. There is an amazing number of bicyclists in this town who ride and talk on their cell phones. I've even seen some riding with no hands, texting and weaving all over the place, and not wearing a helmet to boot.
  9. Rob Tabish
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    Rob Tabish - October 07, 2012 7:11 pm
    i wish this could be a personal responsibility issue, and not have the legal system get involved. if we all could be counted on to be responsible for our our actions, we wouldn't need more stringent DUI laws, seat belt laws, insurance laws, and we would never need to worry about adding safety devices like air bags, impact warning systems, and other equipment that adds to the cost of driving.

    most of us ARE responsible. we just have to make concessions for people, who are marginal drivers to begin with, or who shouldn't even be on the road at all, who refuse to give driving their full attention. we will sadly end up having every aspect of our lives controlled by some regulation because we as a society have to protect ourselves from everything the stupid and the selfish keep thinking they can get away with.
  10. Pistol
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    Pistol - October 07, 2012 7:09 pm
    How is this enforceable? A person is stopped, and claims not to have their cell phone with them. Can their car be searched without a search warrant? If so it would be an excuse to stop people under the pretense of cell phone in order to search the auto. Violation of our privacy.
  11. libertarian
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    libertarian - October 07, 2012 4:47 pm
    Folks bare right, that this legislation is just another revenue enhancement program. We do have law on the book that deal with distracted driving so why do we need another law. Just enforce the laws already on the books. One of the few people to speak up against a state wide ban was Mike Fellows, who is a candidate for the Montana Supreme Court Clerk. SD 41 Senator Kaufmann, sponsored the legislation in the Montana Senate and made the statements that cell phone users are worse then people who drive with a BAC of .08. We know some people just can't multi task very well and shouldn't while driving. Most of us have no problems. I would agree you can't text and drive. Lets use the laws we have on the books. The council has better things to do with their time. I hope people show up and voice their displeasure with this legislation.
  12. Hal Jordan
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    Hal Jordan - October 07, 2012 4:17 pm
    walter12 posted her comment while driving.
  13. evere1has1
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    evere1has1 - October 07, 2012 2:35 pm
    I have seen pedestrians (bike riders included) walk into vehicles' paths while attached to their social umbellcal cord,their phone. Pretty amusing to watch users trip off curbs or bounce off utility poles. I have used the car's horn to bring back male and female drivers to the plane of reality as they have become so mesmerized with their electronic devices while negotiating traffic. These particular drivers looked disoriented when the noise of the horn intruded into their oblivion. This is not a gender specific issue.
    Now I don't see why a law is so bad when there seems to be no common sense or personal responsibility from people willing to compromise safety just to talk, text or watch a device when they could pull over and do whatever.
    Actually maybe a county law would be more effective or a state law. If you can afford the device you should be affording a bluetooth. Here's another idea, any new phone sales have to include a bluetooth and any new vehicle personal or commercial comes equipped with bluetooth. Maybe a new endorsement from DMV for certification on use of personal devices while driving commercial vehicles.
    ps Walter you shouldn't be watching young women while you are driving or else you would see all the young dudes are just as engaged.
  14. Josh
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    Josh - October 07, 2012 11:08 am
    We need this ban in place and enforced soon. Nearly every day I see a near accident, or as a pedestrian must dodge an inattentive driver using their phone. Yes, eating, talking and playing with the radio are distracting. But if you pay attention you will see that phone use is by far the most common cause of inattentive driving in this city.

    If you're looking at the little screen in your lap or trying to press tiny phone buttons, you're not paying enough attention to the road. I guarantee the world won't stop turning if you have to wait ten minutes to send a text, read an email or answer a phone call. If you can't resist playing with your phone even when it puts your safety and the safety of others at risk, then you are probably an addict and should seek help.
  15. tinlizzie
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    tinlizzie - October 07, 2012 10:05 am
    I have been rear-ended twice in the last 4 years both times when I was at a dead stop at a red light - in both instances, the drivers were talking on the phone "Oh my God, I'm soooo sorry - I was on my phone and didn't notice the light was red!"
  16. eli
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    eli - October 07, 2012 9:52 am
    I guess the big government, liberal commies in Missoula really missed the boat on this one, eh Walter?
  17. tswenson
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    tswenson - October 07, 2012 9:51 am
    We don't need a cell phone ban. There are already reckless driving ordinances on the books.It is not the job of government to regulate every aspect of our lives. It's called individual responsibility.
  18. Reason
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    Reason - October 07, 2012 9:46 am
    I wish Strohmaier would stop trying to come up with ways for the city to get it's grubby little fingers into Missoulian's pockets. If you get hit by someone on a cell phone they'll either pay you your restitution or they won't. A city ordinance isn't going to make a bit of difference except that the CITY will expect to gain revenue from your misfortune - and they'll likely see it before you ever see a dime of restitution for your damages.

    We're better off without the ordinance.
  19. timbertiger
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    timbertiger - October 07, 2012 9:36 am
    "...but they and federal recommendations note the recipe for success must include energetic enforcement and outreach, too." There's a reason why no one from Butte was quoted for this. Whatever you do decide, Missoula, make sure it can and IS enforced!
  20. T-Bone7
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    T-Bone7 - October 07, 2012 9:06 am
    How about banning eating while driving, stats show it to be just as distracting if not more so.
  21. BobbyLee
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    BobbyLee - October 07, 2012 8:44 am
    That Missoula consistently lags behind (in just about everything) is indicative to the lamentable attitude of the council. Anything like increasing taxes, installing sidewalks on already paved streets, buying a ballpark, subsidizing their developer cronies, ADUs etc. they do without a second thought because those instances only affect property owners, the tax payers -- seemingly a minority in Missoula once school is in session. But with cell phones they cannot tell one supporter from another and so have left it well alone, for fear of offending their personal voter base. Enough bloody talk people, pick one and sort it out. You don't have to reinvent the wheel here; there are only two main options!

    - "The Missoula Police Department doesn’t compile data on the number of wrecks that involve a driver on a cellphone, but it provides information to the state."

    What? If the MPD has information to send to the state surely it has the ability to compile data? Not too difficult one would assume.

    Missoula is, indeed, fast becoming 'special' only for its utter disfunction. And it should not be so.
  22. Goldilocks
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    Goldilocks - October 07, 2012 8:40 am
    So, Walter, you are saying that only females use their cell phones while driving? That's pretty funny!
  23. Goldilocks
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    Goldilocks - October 07, 2012 8:38 am
    We need a law against DISTRACTED DRIVING. There are more reasons than just cell phone usage causing people to take their eyes off the road for the instant it takes to cause a crash. I have come close to being hit by people eating, looking in the back seat, looking to the center of the car, possibly at the GPS or stereo and not looking at the road. I do agree, however, that cell phone usage and texting are probably the biggest offenders, but the law should be broad enough to cite people for distraction due to these other issues.
  24. taxi-mom
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    taxi-mom - October 07, 2012 8:30 am
    if they are going to enforce this , they will need to start with the police officers FIRST ... yesterday i followed a Sheriffs deputy the length of reserve ... not some 14 yr old girl mind you Walter12 ,,,dont pigeon hole the teens....anyway , this male OFFICER was on his cell phone the whole crawl ( 8 mph was our top speed ) ,,, and this was not an official call,, he was laughing smiling gesturing and more laughing.... until he caught me staring at him .. WTH ? The only reason i did not call dispatch and turn him in was because i was not 100% sure if Missoula was hands free or not ... next time i see that i WILL make the call.
  25. justaguy
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    justaguy - October 07, 2012 8:21 am
    As a person that has been in an automobile accident caused by a person who was texting while driving, I say AMEN!
  26. walter12
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    walter12 - October 07, 2012 7:58 am
    This is a ban that may or may not be correct but it is unenforceable. Every female in Missoula over the age of 14 has a cell phone nowadays and uses it constantly. They carry their phone like a 19 th century preacher carried his bible. They use it in the car all the time.
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