Towns and cities across Montana are asking drivers to hang up and drive, or pay a fine. In Missoula city officials are working on a rule limiting drivers to using hands-free devices, Whitefish has had a similar ordinance in effect for about a year, Billings, Bozeman, Helena, and Butte-Silver Bow, have distracted driving laws on the books, and Columbia Falls just enacted a hands-free rule this summer.
Kalispell is considering joining this growing list.
Kalispell Police Chief Roger Nassett said he doesn’t have local statistics on cell-phone related car accidents. But, he said officers know it’s not just cell phones, but distracted driving in general that’s a problem.
“When you’re in a patrol car, if you’re seeing distracted driving in a patrol car, it’s an issue, because usually, when people in the public see a patrol car, they are driving appropriately. However, now we are seeing it; we’re seeing people that are having their cell phones on the top of their steering wheel, and they’re texting as they’re driving,” Nassett said.
In a recent Kalispell City Council work session the city decided to look into the enforceability of a cell phone ordinance. City Manager Doug Russell said the idea was brought to a council member from a member of the public.
Kalispell’s discussion comes on the heels of other towns across the Flathead adopting hands-free regulations. Columbia Falls adopted a city-wide ban on hand-held electronics while driving in August, and Whitefish has had a hands-free ordinance on the books since last fall.
“What we’re doing right now is trying to put together a sample ordinance that we think would be effective from an enforcement – that was basically where it left off at the work session is, based on other communities experience, what would be something that would make a difference from an enforceability standpoint,” Russell said.
Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial said they’re seeing about 70-percent compliance with their year-old rule. Dial said he and other officers check compliance the old fashioned way- counting cars and seeing who’s grabbing their phones. He said the city’s biggest issue is signage. The city has signs at its limits warning of the ban, but he says they need to make it clearer.
Chief Nassett is working on Kalispell’s sample ordinance. He’s looking at what other cities across the state have done, and how his officers could enforce a distracted driving rule.
Nassett said he’s more interested in the broader distracted-driving rules some communities have enacted than phone-specific regulations.
“I don’t want the driver that’s going down the street to be distracted. I want them to be paying attention to the people that are wanting to cross in a crosswalk, to the vehicles that are stopping in front of them. All those things are so important, and if you are concentrated on a conversation; whether it be verbal or texting, you’re not paying attention,” Nassett said he sees the benefit in a county-wide ordinance so going hands-free would be necessary not just in the Flathead’s individual towns, but on the roads and highways connecting them.
Russell said Kalispell hopes to know whether or not the city will move forward on a distracted driving ordinance by the end of November.