Strong signals 

Cell phone ban for drivers faces possible bumpy road

A delivery truck almost killed Ward 1 Councilmember Dave Strohmaier as he was walking home following the council’s March 11 committee meetings. “I won’t name the company,” says Strohmaier, “but the driver blows right on through the intersection while talking on his phone.”

The near miss couldn’t have been more prescient. Earlier that morning, Strohmaier introduced a ban on Missoula drivers using cell phones. It’s something he hoped wouldn’t be necessary, but after three different cell phone bills died in Helena this legislative session, Strohmaier decided to take matters into his own hands. The city’s Public Safety and Health Committee discussed the topic at length, but took no action. A public hearing has not been set.

The fate of the recent legislative bills and the committee’s debate over the proposed ban speak to the hang-ups of restricting personal cell phone use. While national statistics overwhelmingly show the dangers of talking and driving, only six states and Washington, D.C., have passed cell phone bans for drivers. Critics argue any law would infringe on personal freedoms—an argument that strikes a chord in Montana.

Ward 5 Councilmember Dick Haines told the committee that although he would support such legislation, he understands why a law restricting cell phone use has never passed in Montana—or, for that matter, nationwide. People in eastern Montana will fight “tooth and nail” to keep personal freedoms, he said. Ward 3 Councilmember Bob Jaffe agreed, wondering where City Council should draw the line.

“There’s a lot of things you can do in a car that will distract your driving,” Jaffe said. “But talking to friends, eating—it all regulates how we drive.”

Jaffe also touched on the proposal’s other major hurdle—a majority of Americans have made a habit of talking on their cell phone while driving, and will be reluctant to change.

“As a frequent user of my cell phone while driving, I am hesitant to get behind this one,” he wrote on his listserv following the committee meeting. “But on the other hand, I know I have made bonehead driving moves that would not have happened if I were not distracted by the phone. So I imagine I will come around.”

Not enough legislators came around to save the bill introduced by Rep. Bob Lake, R-Hamilton, earlier this session. Lake, like Strohmaier, pointed to an abundance of data from the National Safety Council (NSC) to support his bill. Statistics show cell phone use contributes to an estimated 6 percent of crashes yearly, which equates to 636,000 crashes, 330,000 injuries, 12,000 serious injuries and 2,600 deaths per year. NSC also estimates the  chance of crashing increases by a factor of four when a driver’s talking on the phone. Despite the numbers, Lake’s bill died in the House Transportation Committee under the weight of legislators waving the civil liberties’ flag.

“There’s a group that is saying that personal freedoms would be hindered if we start telling people what they can do when they’re driving,” says Lake. “It fell into the same group as the primary seatbelt group. They felt like mandating these things steps a little too far into personal freedoms.”

It was that camp, Lake says, that caused his bill to be tabled indefinitely.

“There was not a lot of opposition,” he says. “It was just the committee itself that got tangled up in it.”

Strohmaier’s proposal has the chance to get similarly tied up in Missoula. Although most committee members voiced support for the general idea, the details proved tricky. Strohmaier suggested extending the ban to hands-free devices like Bluetooth headsets, but law enforcement would have no way to distinguish between someone singing to their car stereo and calling home. A representative from the local amateur radio club attended the committee meeting to ask that his constituents receive an exemption from any ban. Similar exemptions were discussed for emergency personnel and police officers.

Other committee members wondered how the city would educate the public about the law. Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir noted the ban could potentially surpass speeding as the city’s top traffic offense. He said police already have plenty of opportunities to stop motorists and don’t necessarily need another one.

Another detail that caught the committee’s attention was the ban’s inclusion of bicyclists. While some members joked that it was physically impossible to hold a phone to your ear, grip a handlebar and maintain balance, Strohmaier argued that was exactly why it was important to add bicyclists to the ordinance.

“I think operating a bike while talking on a cell phone is every bit as dangerous as operating a motor vehicle,” Strohmaier says. “Bikes are considered vehicles. Therefore the ordinance ought to apply to both bikes and motor vehicles.”

The Public Safety and Health Committee plans to hammer out the details before opening the debate to public comment. Until then, Strohmaier, who walks to and from city council meetings, will keep to the sidewalk and watch out for drivers on cell phones.
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