Columbia Falls is looking at an ordinance to ban the use of handheld cellular phones while driving and a public hearing has been set for June 18. City Manager Susan Nicosia said a series of recent close calls and one accident where a man drove into the Flathead River while texting prompted a discussion about a ban.
If the city council moves forward with the new law, it would take effect in late summer. Columbia Falls Police Chief David Perry said his officers wouldn’t begin issuing tickets until fall.
Columbia Falls would become the second town in the valley to impose such a ban, following Whitefish, which began issuing tickets for using a cell phone while driving last year. The Columbia Falls rule would also look very similar to the one already in place in Whitefish.
“We just felt, because of our close proximity to Whitefish, that we should adopt their rules instead of having different ones seven miles away,” Nicosia said. “If all three cities had different rules, that would get pretty confusing. Our hope is to keep it simple.”
Nicosia said the idea for a new ordinance came up during a council meeting discussion about a recent car crash where a driver on River Road was texting and ended up driving into the Flathead River.
“That event sparked a discussion about distracted drivers,” she said. “I think everyone has a tale or two involving a distracted driver or some situation like that.”
After the public hearing on June 18, city officials would have to craft an ordinance and then have two public readings during regular city council meetings. If it passes, the new rules would take effect a month later. Nicosia said the earliest the law could be enforced would be late summer and police would most likely issue warnings for the first 30 days.
Since Whitefish began enforcing its handheld cell phone ban last year, Police Chief Bill Dial said people have been following the rule and that it is having an effect. He said most residents approve of the law. But that wasn’t the case in Polson earlier this year when the city commission began looking at a ban. Facing public opposition, the idea never even got past the public hearing.
“There was significant public comment in opposition of the ordinance,” Polson City Manager Todd Crossett told the Beacon earlier this year. “It doesn’t look like it has much traction.”
While the cell phone ban became a hot topic in Polson, Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart said the discussion in his town has garnered little criticism. He said most of the people he and other city leaders have talked to support the ban, although he looks forward to soliciting more public comment on June 18.
“We all think it’s a good idea, but we still want to hear from the public,” he said.
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