Come Sunday, Billings Police will be pulling over multi-taskers attempting to simultaneously navigate both Billings traffic and a cell-phone conversation.
It’s not just drivers who need to silence and pocket their cells while in wheeled motion.
“If you’re in immediate control of a vehicle – and that includes bicycles – and using a hand-held device, it can be a primary violation,” Police Sgt. Kevin Iffland said recently in an interview.
Unlike seat-belt violations (a secondary offense) police need not suspect a more serious violation before hitting the flashing lights and writing a ticket.
“It’s a municipal infraction in city court” that won’t add points to a person’s driving record - but could cost a $110 fine, said Sgt. Iffland.
The ordinance approved last summer by the Billings City Council provides exemptions for emergency workers such as firefighters, ambulance crews and law enforcement. Bus and taxi drivers can continue to communicate legally by radio, the sergeant said, and anyone with a Bluetooth or other hands-free device can continue to drive and talk with that technology without fear of being ticketed.
Also in the clear are those with a valid amateur radio (ham) license, said Sgt. Iffland.
Insurance-industry studies have concluded that so-called “distracted” driving such as using cell phones is the equivalent of driving with three or four beers under one’s belt, which would constitute a driving-under-the-influence charge and perhaps a suspended license.
Another insurance-industry report last month said one out of four crashes is caused by a “cell phone driver” - someone who could be holding the phone or using a hands-free device. Both are equally distracting, experts say, so the effectiveness of the new Billings regulation as a safety measure may be in doubt.
According to statistics, crashes caused by drivers using cell phones rose from 636,000 in 2003 to 1.6 million in 2008.
Already, eight states (including neighboring Wyoming) have banned cell-phone use while driving and 30 states and the federal District of Columbia have banned texting while operating a vehicle.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he will push for a nationwide ban on cell phone use while driving. “We are going to push very hard,” he said.
In Billings, as in other areas where hands-free cell use has been allowed, many news reports have documented one side effect – a boom in sales of Bluetooth and other hands-off devices as the deadline looms. Many stores have reported their sales increasing from a handful to hundreds of sales daily as the deadline approaches.
And according to findings from the Highway Loss Data Institute, crashes actually increased in states with bans on behind-the-wheel texting. Apparently, drivers don’t quit texting. Instead of holding phones up by the wheel, so at least one eye can follow the road, texters seeking covertness hold it down in their laps, where the cops can’t see it - and the driver can have eyes off the road while traveling the length of a football field while texting.
In another case of unintended consequences akin to Montana’s medical marijuana debacle, humorist Roy Blount Jr. tells a story of “the man that was driving along and he was talking on his iPhone and the police car saw him. And he threw the phone back behind him and said to his wife, ‘Now, just swear to him that I was not talking on the phone. You got to back me up. You’re my wife, you got to back me up.’
“So the cop pulled him over and came over and said, ‘What were you doing there?’
“And he said, ‘Officer, I don’t even have a phone. Ask my wife.’
“And his wife said, ‘Officer, I’ve been married to him for 30 years. One thing I’ve learned is never argue with him when he’s drunk.’”