MISSOULA — 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.”