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Time to hang up: Distracted driving ordinance takes effect today

2010-10-31T00:05:00Z 2010-11-14T12:34:08Z Time to hang up: Distracted driving ordinance takes effect todayZACH BENOIT Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
October 31, 2010 12:05 am  • 

Law enforcement today begins enforcing a citywide ban on cell phone use while driving, a move that city officials hope will improve safety on Billings’ streets.

Similar bans in other cities have had mixed results, and some national studies say such action may not be as effective as intended.

Nationwide, nearly 5,500 people died last year in crashes related to distracted driving, and about one-fifth of those involved cell phone use, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Distracted-driving crashes also injured almost 450,000 more people.

According to the NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, drivers using cell phones are four times as likely to be involved in an injury crash.

Thirty states and Washington, D.C., have passed texting bans and eight states and D.C. have passed bans on handheld devices while driving. Twenty-eight states and D.C. have banned any cell phone use by novice drivers.

Billings’ distracted-driving ordinance — passed this summer by a 7-2 City Council vote — went into effect this morning.

It prohibits motorists and bicyclists from holding or touching a handheld electronic communication device while driving, unless they are using a hands-free setup, such as a Bluetooth, that lets them talk on the phone while keeping both hands on the wheel.

“Talking on the phone is illegal; texting is illegal,” Billings Police Lt. RD Harper said. “Using a hands-free is not illegal.”

Billings Police Chief Rich St. John acknowledges that enforcing the ordinance presents challenges.

If an officer sees somebody violating the ordinance, they will be pulled over, St. John said. But it could be tough for officers to determine if somebody is breaking the law.

“I think the challenge in some cases is where we don’t have a clear and definitive — where they’re using a communications device,” he said. “But hopefully that will be taken care of if our officers exercise common sense and judgment to solve a lot of those problems.”

He said that includes the officers setting an example. The Police Department has purchased hands-free devices for every department-issued cell phone, 45 in total. They will be used mostly by the command staff and detectives.

He said patrol officers often have their personal phones with them and are “highly encouraged” to follow the ordinance, even though they’re exempt while on duty.

“I don’t expect to see them on their phones all the time,” St. John said. “I expect them to exercise common sense and good judgment and stay off the phones unless it’s an emergency situation or they’re pulled over on the side of the road.”

Officials expect people to follow the law right away. St. John said information on the ordinance has been out in the community long enough — through media, public-service announcements and advertising — that there will be no grace period. Officers will begin pulling people over immediately.

“But our goal isn’t to write tickets for this,” said Harper, who sat on the committee that researched and drafted the law. “It’s to improve safety in Billings.”

For the time being, a ticket for using a cell phone while behind the wheel most likely won’t go on insurance or driving records.

“It won’t be a reportable offense until there’s action in other areas than on the local level,” said City Councilwoman Peggie Gaghen, who helped write and promote the new law. “It’s got to be done at a statewide level.”

Officials who designed and promoted the law said that most of the public reaction has been positive, but as with any new law or ordinance, there are detractors.

One of the most common complaints about the distracted-driving ordinance has been that it is a government intrusion on people’s day-to-day lives, an argument city officials and law enforcement officers say doesn’t hold water.

Gaghen said “driving is a privilege, not a right” and that the ordinance is more of a safety issue.

St. John agrees.

“This is designed solely to keep people’s heads up and their eyes on the road,” he said.

Despite mounting evidence that talking or texting on a cell phone while driving is dangerous, a pair of studies from the Highway Loss Data Institute, an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, indicate that handheld and texting bans don’t work.

A study released in late 2009 used insurance claims to compare phone-use-related crash rates before and after handheld bans went into effect in New York, California, Connecticut and D.C. The crash numbers decreased only in New York — the study said that trend was happening before the ban as well — and stayed about the same in the other jurisdictions.

A second claims-based study from the Highway Loss Data Institute released in September — covering California, Louisiana, Minnesota and Washington — indicated that crashes increased slightly in three of the four states. However, that study also said that “noncompliance is a likely reason texting bans aren’t reducing crashes.”

Gaghen said she is skeptical of the studies and pointed to the previous Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study that said drivers are four times as likely to crash while using a phone, as well as the distracted-driving crash statistics provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

St. John said he hadn’t seen the studies but that the intent of the new law, along with sound enforcement by officers, is the important part.

“The intent is to deter and prohibit those blatant cell phone and texting things that we’re talking about,” he said. “The intent is the blatant distracted driving, the both hands over the top of the wheel with a phone, the double-pump, head down texting. If we prevent one accident or one person getting hurt then that’s a positive thing and we can say we’ve had some success with it.”

Ray LaHood, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, has described the studies as “misleading” because they don’t merge with previous finding by the group and don’t match other studies that show distracted driving crashes on the decline in cities with bans.

“Tough laws are the first step, and enforcement must be next,” LaHood said in a written response to the texting study. “We know that anti-distracted driving laws can be enforced effectively because two DOT pilot enforcement programs in Hartford (Conn.) and Syracuse (N.Y.) prove it. In the last six months alone, handheld cell phone use has dropped 56 percent in Hartford and 38 percent in Syracuse, and texting while driving has declined 68 percent in Hartford and 42 percent in Syracuse.”

In November 2009, the Montana State Senate rejected legislation that would have banned the use of handheld communication devices while driving by a vote of 32-17. Gaghen said that, despite the bill’s failure, other towns could look to Billings as a benchmark for such bans.

“I think what we do in Billings will be used as an example in communities across the state,” she said.

As of Oct. 22, there were no complete bill proposals for a statewide ban for the upcoming Legislature. The closest thing to such a bill is a bill proposal from Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, for 2011, which is in the process of being drafted, to include distracted driving in other driving offenses.

A statewide ban on texting while driving in Wyoming went into effect in July, but the number of citations issued under that law was not available.

Cheyenne, Wyo., enacted a ban similar to Billings’ in fall 2009. From November 2009 to Oct. 15 of this year, Cheyenne police issued 361 tickets under the ordinance, and Sgt. Rob Dafoe said they’ve issued two to three times as many warnings.

“It’s not that there’s difficulty enforcing it,” he said. “The challenge that we see is there’s still plenty of violators.”

The problem, he said, is that other police calls often take priority and that the time it’s easiest to spot somebody breaking the law, the daylight hours, is also their busiest time of the day.

“If we had the budget and the means to have a dedicated cell phone police, we could probably write 40 to 50 tickets a day,” Dafoe said.

Missoula passed a ban on texting last summer, and as of Oct. 19, the Missoula Police Department had issued four tickets for the ban. The number of warnings was not available.

Missoula Police Capt. Chris Odlin said his city’s ban has been difficult to enforce because it’s tough for officers to tell if somebody is texting, making a call, searching their contact list or fiddling with an MP3 player.

People also could be more likely to try to hide their phone while texting, he said.

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