COLUMBIA FALLS – The Columbia Falls City Council is moving forward with an ordinance that would ban drivers from using handheld cellular phones. Now city officials will write up the law, fashioned after the one Whitefish passed last year, and it will be read before the council at the next regular meeting on July 16.
The public was given a chance to voice their opinions about the ordinance during the June 18 council meeting, but only one person stepped to the podium. The lack of attendance was a point annoyance for Mayor Don Barnhart.
“It bothers me when we don’t hear from the public,” Barnhart said. “I feel like we’re legislating without community consent.”
But City Manager Susan Nicosia said she had fielded several calls from citizens in regard to the new rules and the vast majority of them supported it. Councilor Doug Karper called it a “silent majority.”
“I think most people agree with this and expect us to do the right thing,” he said. “If there were a lot of people opposed to this they would be here yelling at us.”
Rick Maedje, the one citizen who did testify in support of the ordinance, argued that just talking on the phone is a distraction and he would support banning all electronic communication devices while driving, hands-free or not.
Following a discussion by the council, the board voted unanimously in favor of drafting an ordinance to ban handheld communication devises while driving, including laptops and GPS systems. Although there was some discussion about whether the state Legislature would pass a statewide ban (according to Nicosia, it is already illegal in 39 states and the District of Columbia to use handheld cell phones while driving), the issue was deemed too important to wait.
“The reality is that in a city environment, cell phones are a distraction,” she said.
Columbia Falls began discussing the ban earlier this spring after a series of close calls and traffic accidents. Now that the council has decided to move forward with the ordinance, it will be drafted and then read before the council and voted on twice.
The earliest the law could go into effect would be at the end of the summer and, like Whitefish did last year, there would be a month-long period where police would only issue warnings. Signs announcing the new rule would also have to be erected on all roads entering the city, something Police Chief David Perry said would cost about $1,000.
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