Slow lane 

Missoula finally passes cellphone ordinance

Monday night, Missoula became the last major city in Montana to ban cellphone use while driving. It's been kind of a big week for votes, so maybe this one slipped by you. Back in 2009, Missoula tried to become the first city in Montana to enact such a ban, but Mayor John Engen vetoed it, citing lack of an exemption for hands-free devices.

What a difference three years make. Since Missoula's first try at a cellphone ban, Bozeman, Butte, Helena, Whitefish and Havre have all enacted ordinances. As Councilman Dave Strohmaier put it to the Missoulian: "We have been eclipsed by all the other major cities in Montana sans Kalispell, and it seems like, okay, it's time to get with the program here. Let's take another run at this."

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news

Oh, you say snidely, Kalispell. It is a known fact that Flathead County is home to the worst drivers in the state, and the Buick that made an unsignaled left turn in front of you this morning had a "7" on its license plate. By the same token, it is a known fact that talking on the phone makes you incapable of operating a car.

I have established this fact via a scientific study, wherein every time I get angry at the driver in front of me, I zoom past him glaring and, sure enough, notice he had a phone pressed to his head. My data collection has been informal, but my best estimate holds that this result occurs 100 percent of the time.

My study has also found that using a hands-free device does not make you drive any better; it only makes you likely to drive a bigger car. Even not using a phone at all appears to consistently impair the driver directly in front of me, particularly in the parking lot of the Good Food Store, but that is conjecture. All that can be said with absolute, scientific certainty is that talking on the phone makes everyone worse at driving except for me.

I am a fantastic driver. It's probably why I am beset by so many terrible ones: they see my graceful turns and quick reflexes and conclude that I am a safe person to pull out in front of. Talking on the phone while driving is no problem for me, as it merely reduces my superhuman abilities to those of a very skilled operator. It's like if Tony Stewart had to run the Daytona 500 while eating a meatball sub: He's not setting a track record, probably, but still finishing in the top five.

Also, I am rarely on the phone. I pretty much only use my phone to field reports from my father about weather and traffic in Iowa, plus if my girlfriend calls. She, too, is an excellent driver, and I will talk to her only for as long as it takes to absorb pertinent information and hang up in time to narrowly avoid the idiot in front of me, who for no reason at all has stopped at a yellow light.

So I welcome our brave city's ban on cellphones while driving, even though I personally remain above it. Evidently, I am not alone. Missoula has forbidden texting while driving since 2009, but according to police, that has primarily encouraged texting drivers to look away from the road as they hide their phones in their laps. It's almost as if public safety laws, from seat belts to turn signals, apply exclusively to everyone else.

Fortunately, Missoulians will have time to adjust. For the first 90 days after the cellphone ban takes effect, police will issue warnings instead of tickets. After that, half of the fines collected will go toward signage and programs to educate people about the new law, which is either a good plan or a frightening pyramid scheme, depending on how you look at it. But the important thing is that people will understand that talking on the phone while they drive is dangerous, just like texting, and not signaling your turns, and sneaking through the light at Russell and Broadway because the guy in front of you did.

People will probably pick up on the fact that driving while using their phone is dangerous, and change their habits. The only other outcome I can foresee is that the good drivers will obey, and the bad drivers will go on shouting into their phones about the new BK Angry Whopper as they careen down Mullan on their way to that movie where Kevin James is a prize fighter. It could go either way. Hopefully such people will realize their limitations, however, and if they do not the police can stop and ticket them for the safety of superior drivers like me. I just hope I don't get caught up in the dragnet. The thing about this kind of ordinance is that you don't want it to punish the wrong people.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, consumer culture and lying at combatblog.net.

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