City mulls distracted driving ordinance

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Proposal would ban cell phone usage while driving in city limits

A new, proposed City of Powell ordinance is likely to get community members on both sides of the issue talking in the coming weeks.

Ordinance No. 21 — which would prohibit driving while using a cellular telephone with the potential of some exceptions — was approved unanimously by the Powell City Council at its first reading on Oct. 16.

The approval opens the door for two more readings on Nov. 6 and Nov. 20, and if passed, will go into law shortly after that. Jokingly referred to at last week’s meeting as the “Mangold Ordinance,” Councilman Scott Mangold put the idea before Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt after a near miss with an inattentive driver on a cell phone downtown.

“Scott [Mangold] just about got ran over in a crosswalk,” Eckerdt said. “This ordinance is his project, and he had asked if I would support something like that. I told him I think we’ve reached a time that it’s probably necessary to take a look at it.”

The ordinance as it’s currently written would allow the use of a cell phone if it is “specifically designed to allow hands-free operation and is used in a hands-free manner.” Councilman Tim Sapp mentioned a recent study concerning the dangers of using a hands-free device while driving, and wondered if the results of the study would be taken into account when considering the hands-free exception.

“I won’t speak for the chief, but I think he’s OK with trying the use of hands-free devices, since it seems to be kind of industry standard right now,” said Mayor John Wetzel. “It’s a good question to bring up to the chief.”

Councilman Eric Paul wondered how a ban on hands-free devices could be enforced.

“I can’t figure out how you would enforce that,” Paul said. “Is somebody singing along to the radio? Talking to themselves? Talking to someone in the back seat? There are lots of things that distract a driver.”

Since the proposed ordinance is in its infancy, there is plenty of time for revision and public comment.

“The time to make your concerns heard is at these public meetings,” Eckerdt said. “If you have some honest and valid input, show up and supply it.”

The ordinance in front of the council was patterned after an ordinance currently in use in Cheyenne. Eckerdt said he chose that ordinance as a model because it’s “clear cut.”

“You just can’t be utilizing a hand-held device while you’re driving,” he said, explaining that includes GPS, texting and talking on the phone.

“Your focus needs to be on the road,” Eckerdt said. “So what this ordinance will do is limit yourself to hands-free only. Talking to the chief down there [in Cheyenne], the community is pretty happy with it to the point that the chief said he gets calls when officers don’t stop somebody talking on their cell phones.”

Should the ordinance be approved on second and third readings, City Attorney Sandee Kitchen said it would generally go into effect the day it’s published in the Powell Tribune.

“It will be important to let the public know if the police department will be issuing tickets right away, or whether they will be issuing warnings,” Kitchen said. “Obviously it is a big change in the municipality, and so I think you’d want the public to know. This is the first reading, so maybe administration or the mayor would like to have a discussion with the chief as to perhaps a delayed effective date.”

Eckerdt said he plans to recommend an effective date of Jan. 1.

“I don’t compare this to the trailer [parking] ordinance, where it affected just the people living in town,” Eckerdt explained. “The cell phone ordinance is going to affect everyone, so if we pick a date in the future, it gives the city time to get signage up to let people know we do have an ordinance. It also gives the ordinance time to be talked about in the newspaper, put on our website, on our Facebook pages to get the word out. Then we’ll start enforcing it.”

Signage was another aspect of the ordinance that council felt needed to be addressed relatively soon if the ordinance was to go into effect before the end of the year.

“People that live here may hear about it, may know about it,” Kitchen said. “But somebody traveling through may not know. But if you have a sign that says ‘cell phone use prohibited,’ that would be another good discussion to have.”

Streets Superintendent Gary Butts suggested that the city could utilize the same kind of signage as the speed limit signs at the four main entry points into Powell.

“As people come into Powell, we have ‘25 mph unless posted otherwise’ signs,” Butts said. “It would be very similar to that.”

As for enforcement of the ordinance, Eckerdt said officer discretion would be a factor. Everything the police department does is based on “the totality of the circumstances.”

“With the exception of illicit drugs and DUIs, we don’t have a hard-and-fast rule of what gets a citation every time,” he said. “History of contacts, driving history, all of that will come into play. However, if you do something extremely egregious while the cell phone is in your hand — like almost creaming somebody in a crosswalk — even if it’s a first offense, you might still get a ticket.”

Last week’s council meeting clocked in at 31 minutes, and covered quite a bit of ground, from a request to waive building permit fees for a project at the Park County Fairgrounds to the approval of a bid for the purchase of a new mini-excavator and skidsteer.

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