News & Features

Montana Lawmakers Consider Ban on Cell Use While Driving

Some communities, like Whitefish and Columbia Falls, already have a cell phone ban

HELENA — Leona Schneemann of Rosebud County told a panel of lawmakers Monday that Montana should join every other state in the nation with a law against texting while driving, saying it caused the death of her teenage son.

In support of a proposal to curb drivers’ cellphone use, Schneemann said 17-year-old Dustin was impaled in an accident after texting while driving nearly four years ago.

“Three letters ended my son’s life,” Schneemann said: “Lol.”

Rep. Virginia Court brought House Bill 297 before the House Judiciary Committee. No action was immediately taken on the proposal, which faces several legislative hurdles before it could become law.

A representative of the Montana Libertarian Party opposed the plan, calling it a money-grab that unnecessarily limits freedom. Mike Fellows added that texting behind the wheel may already be illegal under careless driving laws. “In the end, banning cellphone use is not about safety but about revenue enhancement,” he said.

The pushback echoed criticisms that have surfaced over the past 14 years, when the first bill to limit cellphone use while driving was introduced. Measures proposing the ban have failed before the Legislature every session since.

The bans vary across the nation, from applying to all drivers in 44 states to age-based restrictions in Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. In Arizona, phone restrictions apply only to school bus drivers. Montana is the last state with no phone regulations in driving laws.

Court’s bill would prohibit drivers from using any hand-held electronic communication device while driving on a highway or stopped at a traffic light or stop sign. It directs drivers to use an earpiece or pull over to use their phones.

“We need to put down the phone, and we need to focus on the task at hand: driving in a safe and prudent manner,” the Billings Democrat said. “Statistics show that it is no longer ‘if’ someone you know will be affected, but ‘when.’ ”

Court said she would welcome an amendment to limit the restriction to texting and calling, so that drivers could use phones for navigation.

Representatives of school bus and tow truck drivers, police, highway patrol, medical associations and AT&T spoke in favor of the bill.

Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Jason Hildenstab, who supported the measure, said phone use while driving would be a secondary offense, like riding without a seatbelt. Hildenstab said texting is visible to officers, who would likely pull over offenders for careless driving.

In his testimony, Hildenstab said the bill would likely prevent car crashes, though it’s difficult to know how many because most who cause accidents are not forthcoming about cellphone use.

The Governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning stated in a fiscal note attached to the bill that 214 crashes that occurred in 2014 were known to be caused by cellphone use.

Under Court’s bill, a first time offense would carry a $50 fine. Second offenses would cost $100, and subsequent convictions would cost $200.

The proposal follows a narrower plan introduced last week by Republican Rep. Frank Garner of Kalispell that would prohibit cellphone use for drivers in work zones. The House Transportation Committee will hear that plan Wednesday.