Council members divided over city cellphone ban

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A draft cell phone ban for drivers drew mixed responses from Kalispell City Council members at their work session Monday.

But after some final adjustments, the proposed ordinance is expected to be put to a formal vote in coming weeks, as requested by council member Randy Kenyon.

“Let’s do it in the bright light of the public view, bring it forth and vote on it,” Kenyon said at one point as the initiative seemed about to die during the non-televised work session. “Let the public know who’s for it and who’s against it.”

Kenyon said he wholeheartedly supports the ban.

The draft ordinance would prohibit people from using handheld electronic communication devices such as cell phones while they are driving or riding a bike, making it a primary offense and civil infraction punishable by fines up to $100 for a first offense and $300 for later offenses.

The proposal mirrors bans enacted in Whitefish, Columbia Falls and most other Montana cities. “This is a straightforward way to do something for public safety,” Kenyon said.

Council member Jim Atkinson first requested the issue be explored. He agreed the ordinance is a common-sense thing for Kalispell to adopt, but said it’s sad that it’s needed at all.

“To me it’s akin to writing a law saying you shouldn’t put your hand on a hot stove. Of course you shouldn’t be distracting yourself texting or talking when your primary job is driving,” Atkinson said. “I think it’s a good idea for this community to go on record saying we value your safety and our safety by putting this law into effect for our well being.”

Other council members aren’t so sure.

Jeff Zauner, Tim Kluesner, Phil Guiffrida III and Kari Gabriel all questioned the ordinance.

They raised concerns about how the ban would be enforced and how effective it would be with so many other activities contributing to distracted driving. Some of them expressed hope for a countywide or even statewide ban.

“The policing of this will be a nightmare,” Kluesner said, adding that even most of the hands-free devices allowed under the ordinance are touch-activated.

Gabriel questioned why the ordinance does not include portable music devices such as iPods. She also expressed concern about an exemption in the ordinance for people who hold amateur radio operator licenses.

“I don’t think the idea is bad, but the ordinance is not written as it should be,” Gabriel said. “I just don’t want to put something in place that isn’t quite ready, and I don’t feel like it is.”

Police Chief Roger Nasset prepared the draft ordinance and said council members are free to amend it or reject it however they want.

Nasset said he spoke to 12 police officers earlier in the day to get their thoughts on the ban. All seemed to support it.

“Some said it’s too bad we have to be here. But it seems from their perspective that it’s an issue in the community,” Nasset said. “As much as I hate to create new rules, and I don’t want to create bad rules, I personally believe there’s a safety issue out there right now. Will this fix it? I don’t know.”

Reporter Tom Lotshaw may be reached at 758-4483 or by email at tlotshaw@dailyinterlake.com.

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