Distracted driving ordinance passes on third reading

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An ordinance banning the handheld use of cellphones while driving within Powell city limits passed unanimously on its final reading at Monday’s City Council meeting, but not before a resident had his say on the matter.

Ordinance No. 21 stemmed from Councilman Scott Mangold nearly being run over in the downtown area by an inattentive driver talking on a cellphone. No members of the public spoke about the ordinance at its first two readings before the council, and Monday’s third reading represented the final opportunity for feedback from the community. Ken Mitchell, a Park County resident who grew up in Powell, took that opportunity.

“I guess I would preface this with when does the long arm of Big Brother stop?” Mitchell asked, adding, “I personally was coming out of the drugstore here in Powell when a young lady pushing a stroller and texting at the same time almost hit me. Are we going to have an ordinance about no walking and texting in Powell?”

“What if she was driving?” asked councilman Floyd Young.

“If she was driving we already have laws on the books about that. It’s called inattentive driving,” Mitchell said, adding, “Why do we need another rule that doesn’t have a lot of teeth to it?”

He went on to cite various examples of inattentive driving, such as hand-holding, listening to the radio and carrying on a conversation with passengers.

“I don’t think I need a law or anyone else needs a law, or a city ordinance, or anything else that says, 10 and 2 [o’clock with hands on the steering wheel], turn down the radio, shut your mouth and pay attention,” he said.

Mitchell also questioned whether the positive feedback council members have received outside City Hall was a fair representation, guessing most of the people the council talked to “were in my age group.”

“But if you had talked to people in their teens and 20s and 30s, I doubt many of them would honestly say the same thing. I don’t believe that an ordinance is necessary.”

Mitchell then addressed Mangold directly about the incident that precipitated the introduction of Ordinance No. 21.

“I’m sorry you almost got clipped,” Mitchell began.

“It wasn’t ‘almost,’” Mangold interjected. “I got hit. And as I got off the hood of the car and was brushing myself off, she didn’t get off the phone, and drove away. And I didn’t get her license number.”

Mitchell again apologized, but then asked what Mangold would have done, had the ordinance been in place, to get the driver cited. Mangold replied there was nothing he could have done.

“See?” Mitchell said. “So the ordinance wouldn’t have any teeth.”

Mayor John Wetzel theorized the driver could have been cited prior to the accident if observed on her cellphone. Mangold concurred and took the argument a step further.

“Maybe she wouldn’t have used that phone if there were an ordinance in place,” Mangold said.

Mitchell then questioned the enforcement of the new ordinance, turning to Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt.

“I have seen his staff driving up the street talking on a cellphone; I have seen his staff driving around town without a seat belt in place. How many rules do you think it’s going to take? And for what reason?” Mitchell said.

After Mangold pointed out the police department is subject to the same laws as the rest of the community, Mayor Wetzel allowed Mitchell his final thoughts.

“So I guess the bottom line is you’re not in favor of this ordinance,” Wetzel said.

“I’m 100 percent against it,” Mitchell replied. “Because where’s it going to stop?”

Wetzel took that opportunity to defend the council’s position, saying he doesn’t believe the city is overly aggressive in writing ordinances.

“As a council, we pass maybe 20 ordinances a year,” Wetzel explained, adding that about half involve cleaning up language and that many have been repealed in recent years.

“We do feel pretty strongly this is a safety measure,” Wetzel said of the cellphone ordinance. “You have your opinion, and we appreciate it. It doesn’t matter if you live in city or town, we will listen to people at this council.”

With no further discussion on the matter, the council voted unanimously to approve Ordinance No. 21. It takes effect on Jan. 1.

After the meeting, Chief Eckerdt talked about the implementation process of “advertising, education, signage.”

“Make it a New Year’s Resolution not to talk on your phone while you’re driving in Powell. Or at least use hands-free,” he said.

Eckerdt also asked the public to be aware of the details of the ordinance.

“It’s been referred to and called the ‘cellphone ordinance,’ but it’s implemented and written as a hands-free device,” he explained. “Part of that was from an enforcement perspective of, if we say you can’t talk on your cellphone, what about using it as your GPS or changing your music or whatever. It covers all of that.”

Simply put, if a driver has their phone in their hand and are looking at the screen, the driver is in violation of the ordinance.

“The council obviously expects us to enforce this ordinance, but we have to be able to prove whatever it is you’re in violation of,” Eckerdt said. “One conversation we’ve already had is, you can’t text and drive, but how do we prove you’re texting, and not surfing the web, or changing your playlist or checking your GPS? Those are all issues that come into play.”

Eckerdt reiterated that enforcement will be on a case to case basis, with the goal on implementation to consist primarily of warnings. That said, citations will be given out if the situation warrants it.

“We issue far more warnings than we do citations; the whole goal of traffic enforcement is to gain compliance, not to hand out tickets,” he said. “But back to the totality of circumstances, if there’s a pattern of behavior there that proves a warning isn’t going to be sufficient to correct this behavior, then obviously it’s a citation.”

Regarding Mitchell’s claims of seeing officers routinely violate seat belt laws and use cellphones, Eckerdt said that, without knowing the specific instances Mitchell was referring to, it’s hard to put the claims into the proper context.

“Not only is it state statute that we wear our seat belts, it’s in our policy to wear our seat belts,” Eckerdt said, though he added there are exceptions.

“We train that our seat belt doesn’t go on until after we start driving, and it comes off before we stop; we have to be able to get out of the vehicle quickly,” the chief said. “I don’t know for sure where he was coming from.”

Eckerdt said he was surprised more people didn’t make their voices heard throughout the city council process, but said the community members he’s spoke to have been overwhelmingly supportive of the ordinance.

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