It was only a matter of time before Missoula joined the other major municipalities of Montana in adopting a strict ban on driving while using a cellphone.
While Missoula was among the first to propose such a prohibition, it was one of the last to actually adopt one. Missoula City Councilors approved a law against using a cellphone while operating a vehicle in 2009 but Mayor John Engen vetoed all but the ban on texting while driving, citing the need for an exemption for hands-free devices.
The ban passed by City Council last Monday includes just such an exemption. Missoula now has less than 30 days to get used to the idea of driving without a cellphone in hand before police start issuing warnings, and another 60 days before police start issuing citations.
The new ordinance is expected to be a lot easier for Missoula police to enforce than the ban on texting. Officers often couldn’t determine whether drivers were truly texting or merely dialing a number; now, they’ll be able to issue a citation if they catch a driver doing either.
And enforcement, along with education, is key. Drivers feel free to ignore a law that lacks teeth, rendering any ordinance meaningless and useless for its intended purpose – decreasing the number of traffic accidents and fatalities.
However, in the three years since Missoula passed its texting ordinance, police were able to write fewer than 30 tickets.
Compare that to Helena, where police issued more than 300 citations this year alone. Or Billings, where police have given nearly 400 warnings to drivers and written nearly 400 tickets so far this year. Butte nabbed 30 drivers in one three-day blitz alone using unmarked cars. These cities are sending a clear signal that they are serious about enforcing this ordinance.
Missoula needs to send a similar signal, and the ordinance is set up to accomplish this. The law directs half the money collected from its fines toward signs and education efforts about the hazards of distracted driving. And with minimum fines starting at $100, Missoula City Council members predict the fines will quickly add up.
Despite the steep fine and the fact that most cellphone owners are guilty of “dialing and driving” at least some of the time, public support for the cellphone prohibition has been strong in Missoula, with most of the people at council meetings voicing support for stricter limits on cellphone use by drivers. The most recent public meeting on the ordinance was packed with Missoula residents, most of whom told the council they favor of the new ordinance.
This is because many Missoulians recognize the dangers inherent in distracted driving – often through personal experience.
Councilman Dave Strohmaier, who forwarded the original 2009 ordinance and shepherded the amended version this year, said that he has continued to hear complaints from constituents about narrowly avoided accidents and traffic violations caused by drivers distracted by cellphones.
The newly passed ordinance includes sensible exemptions for two-way radios, emergency vehicles and emergency phone calls. And, of course, an exemption for hands-free devices – which remains a point of contention for some Missoulians.
Various studies have concluded that it is indeed just as dangerous to drive using a hands-free device as a hand-held one. Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that traffic safety laws include a ban on both kinds of communication devices.
Apparently, Missoula isn’t ready for a ban on hands-free devices just yet. In the meantime, those drivers who simply must communicate with people other than the passengers inside their car can pick up an earpiece for as little as $30.
EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen