By Justin Franz, 2-14-12
The Polson City Commission will vote next week on an ordinance banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. A public hearing will be held before the regularly scheduled Feb. 22 commission meeting to discuss the ordinance, which resembles a law Whitefish passed in 2011.
The ordinance was first discussed during a Jan. 18 meeting. For it to become law it must be voted on and passed twice during meetings on Feb. 22 and March 5. Polson Police Chief Wade Nash thinks the law will be tough to enforce, especially if the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes don’t enact a similar ordinance.
Commissioner and former Mayor Mike Lies said he proposed the ordinance after he was almost hit by a car driven by someone talking on a cell phone.
“It’s basically a safety issue. There have been, I’m sure, many close calls and people should be focusing on driving and not talking and texting,” he said. “I know one of these days there’s going to be an accident and someone is going to get hurt.”
City Manager Todd Crossett said the response from the public at the last meeting, both positive and negative, prompted the commission to schedule next week’s hearing.
The new ordinance would only govern non-tribal members and because the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes is a sovereign nation its members would not have to abide by it. Nash said if the tribe doesn’t enact a similar law, it would be nearly impossible to enforce.
“I just feel if we’re going to enforce something like this, we need to include the tribe as well,” he said. “I’m not saying (cell phones) are not a concern and it shouldn’t be addressed, I just think it needs to be thought out more.”
Nash talked with the tribal police chief last week and it seemed unlikely, at least at this time, that the tribe would enact a similar law. Nash said a ban on texting while driving was a more reasonable route forward.
Polson resident Johna Morrison agreed with Nash. She called it a “worthless cell phone ordinance” and said cell phones aren’t the only distraction for drivers, adding that people should be more responsible for themselves.
“Why are we wasting our time on this crap when there are so many other issues to address?” she asked.
She referenced a similar ordinance enacted in Missoula more than two years ago. According to her, the police department has issued few tickets since it became law.
But Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial said the cell phone ban in his town, in place since last year, has made a difference. Now that the law has been in place for a while, officers are issuing tickets, not just warnings; a first offense is $100, a second almost $300.
“The best thing is that the vast majority of citizens in Whitefish have embraced it and think it’s a good law,” Dial said. “Some will exaggerate and say that everyone is still talking on the phone (and driving), but that’s not true. This law is having an effect.”
As the Polson ordinance is written now, the fee for breaking the law would be about the same as it is in Whitefish. But before police officers can start issuing tickets, the public and the city commission will have its say.
“I think the intention is to have a good conversation about it. I don’t think we’re in a hurry,” Crossett said. “We want to see what would be good for Polson.”
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