Mitchell's texting-while-driving ban stallsCity Council opts to urge legislative action instead.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
A ban on texting while driving in Mitchell will be put on hold as the City Council decided to wait and see if the 2013 Legislature outlaws it across the state.
“I want to get the debate started, so that’s why I put it on first reading tonight,” Mayor Ken Tracy said Monday night at City Hall.
A spirited debate then took place, with Tracy, City Council members, city staffers, a local minister and a man who was convicted in a 2010 fatal crash that killed a Mitchell man all joining in the discussion. In the end, Tracy and the council urged the 2013 Legislature to act, and said the city will wait to see if it does.
Justin Iburg, a former Fulton resident who now lives in Mitchell, was found guilty of reckless driving in a case involving the death of Jon Christensen in 2010. Iburg was reading a text message when he collided with Christensen’s parked motorcycle at a state Highway 38 construction site a few miles east of Mitchell. The 44-year-old man was killed in the crash.
Iburg, 22, was found not guilty of second-degree manslaughter. Iburg was offered an option to serve a year in jail or give up his license for five years, serve 100 days in jail, be on probation for two years and give 25 presentations to groups telling his story.
Iburg said he has conducted 34 demonstrations on the dangers of texting and driving. He rose from the audience and spoke during the debate.
“My opinion is it’s not just texting and driving, it’s distracted driving,” he said. “It’s not just texting and driving.”
But Iburg said he favors such a ban.
Councilman Phil Carlson said he had been waiting all day to discuss the proposal. Carlson is a lawyer.
“This is going to be a statute that’s going to be difficult to enforce,” he said.
Carlson said a police officer would have to seize a mobile device to secure evidence for a possible jury trial, since the records would not be available to the city by subpoeona. That would mean all information on a person’s cell phone potentially would become public record.
“If you’re OK with that, fine,” he said. “My position as a criminal defense attorney is it’s not.”
Carlson said there are laws on the books banning reckless driving and he feels they already prohibit such activity. He also said making phone calls while driving is equally dangerous.
Carlson said a Sioux Falls TV reporter told him no tickets were written in Sioux Falls since the law was enacted Friday because of a feeling the law is not enforceable.
Tracy said since 35 states have passed texting-while-driving bans, it must have some validity. The other point, he said, was that by making it a law most people would adhere to it and not do it.
Councilman Marty Barington said he favors such a ban but isn’t ready to vote for one in Mitchell
“I’m against texting and driving,” Barington said. “And we do need to get something started. I think it starts somewhere else. It doesn’t start here.”
He said the proper place is in the Legislature, and he has been told a bill to prohibit it will be introduced during the 2013 session. Barington said it may be an expensive and difficult law to enforce.
“Let’s find out what they do,” he said, leading into a reference to Sioux Falls and its newly enacted ban. “Because they jumped off a cliff, do we need to? Let’s see what they do.”
Tracy said he wonders how long the city should wait. He has discussed it with other South Dakota mayors and many of them want action taken.
The question is, will the Legislature act?
Public Safety Chief Lyndon Overweg said polls show the vast majority of South Dakotans favor such a ban, and not creating one will mean more crashes, more injuries and perhaps more deaths.
New Home Lutheran Church Pastor Max Waltz said he favors pro-action, not reaction. He said Iburg was taking a terrible event and turning it into a blessing. Miller favored an educational campaign to encourage people not to use mobile devices while driving.
Council President Jeff Smith said the problem is drivers ages 14 to 22, since he feels most adults are responsible and careful in using their mobile devices. Smith said he is willing to wait, but if the Legislature fails to act he will lead the effort to enact a ban in Mitchell.
Tracy announced his support for the ban during the Sept. 17 Traffic Commission meeting. Tracy said he has been frustrated by the Legislature’s unwillingness to take action on the issue. When he saw Sioux Falls enact a ban, he decided to recommend following suit, and used the Sioux Falls ban as a template.
Councilman Mel Olson said there are too many potentially unanswered questions.
“Unless we’re going to ban everything, this does nothing,” Olson said, referring to all uses of mobile devices while driving.