Possible mobile phone ban discussed by city ordinance committee

by Derrick Perkins
Editor | March 17, 2020 8:46 AM

Libby City Council may soon consider whether to make using a mobile phone while driving an offense that potentially results in a traffic stop.

The proposal arose during a March 10 meeting of the council’s ordinance committee. Using an ordinance approved in nearby Whitefish as a reference point, the potential ban could target motorists spotted handling a mobile device while operating a motor vehicle.

The ordinance would not apply to emergency responders or passengers in a vehicle. The language also carves out exceptions for hands free or Bluetooth-enabled devices and two-way radios used by professionals in the course of their work duties as well as licensed amateur radio operators.

“We’ve been requested to put together an ordinance looking at cell phone use,” said City Councilor Peggy Williams. “Do we want to go there or not want to go there? This is the second time we’ve been asked that question and the first time the city said it didn’t want to go there.”

Montana is without a statewide law restricting cell phone use while driving. It is the only state in the country without any such law, according to Bloomberg.

But municipalities, like Whitefish, have added laws curtailing mobile device use behind the wheel.

Were Libby to follow suit, new signs announcing the restriction would need to go up at city limits, said Police Chief Scott Kessel, who was in attendance for the meeting.

Pressed by city councilors Kristin Smith, Brian Zimmerman and Williams, Kessel offered tempered support for an ordinance addressing mobile phone use while driving.

“I think it would be a tool,” he said before telling the trio of city councilors that he hoped to see the body poll the community on the issue before taking further action.

Kessel said he knows whether a motorist is distracted by how they drive. But his officers need a reason to initiate the traffic stop. Presently, unless the motorist crosses a line or rolls through a stop sign, there is no way to do that, he said.

Basically, a traffic infraction coupled with mobile phone use results in a careless driving charge. But mobile phone use without a driving infraction is not a chargeable offense.

The penalty for careless driving in Libby is $85. A motorist caught driving while using a mobile device faces a $100 fine in Whitefish.

Kessel also said the ordinance would help efforts to catch and deter criminals. A reason to stop a vehicle, like a broken taillight or careless driving, can lead to other charges, he said.

“There are some times that it’s handy, especially in our criminal interdiction, whether it’s drug use or stolen property, where we’re stopping vehicles for violations [like] having headlights out, taillights out, failing to obey a stop sign and now talking on a cell phone,” he said. “Now it’s one more tool.”

City councilors seemed split on how they viewed the ordinance. Smith questioned the necessity of an ordinance specific to mobile devices if careless driving infractions already led to penalties.

“Isn’t that how punishment should work?” she asked. “Are we searching for a solution in need of a problem?”

Kessel responded by saying the current laws are reactive rather than preventative.

Smith later said she was playing devil’s advocate and hoped to see the proposal go before city council for further discussion.

Zimmerman said that, in his experience working downtown, there absolutely is a problem with motorists on mobile devices.

Williams said she looked forward to passing the proposal along to their colleagues on city council.

“I, as part of this committee, would prefer to see this discussion on the council level and community level rather than here,” she said. “It had to happen here, but I believe it needs to go to the council level.”