Mitchell City Council will draft ban on texting while drivingPanel might be split, but mayor favors a ban and would break a tie.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
The Mitchell City Council is drafting an ordinance to ban texting while driving in Mitchell, and it appears to have a chance of becoming city law.
A draft ordinance will be presented to the council at its April 1 meeting, and four of the eight council members said during a meeting Monday night at City Hall that they will support it. Council President Jeff Smith and council members Dan Allen, Randy Doescher and Susan Tjarks said they will vote for the law.
Councilman Mel Olson said he instead favors an ordinance outlawing distracted driving, since there are other things people do that make them less-aware drivers. But Olson joined with the other proponents to vote to have the ordinance drafted, and the motion to have a texting-while-driving ban drafted passed 5-3.
Councilmen Marty Barington and Phil Carlson said they favor a statewide ban, but feel it is not a local issue. Councilman Steve Rice was the sole member not to make his view known, but he voted with Barington and Carlson against drafting the ordinance.
Mayor Ken Tracy, who would only vote in case of a tie, brought the issue before the council once before and again on Monday night. Tracy has repeatedly said he favors a ban.
“The Legislature has once again failed on an issue that deserves some public attention,” Tracy said at the start of the meeting.
The council had an item on its agenda that said it was considering “Prohibiting text messaging while in control of a moving vehicle on a public street.”
But after hearing from state Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, and a leading legislative advocate for a statewide textingwhile-driving ban, it decided to model the city law after the bill Vehle introduced this legislative session. The bill passed in the Senate but was defeated in the House Judiciary Committee.
Vehle said the proposed law can “create a culture” of not texting and driving, and can educate people to stop doing it, or not start doing it. People will be nagged by their kids, or will want to avoid breaking the law, Vehle said.
Vehle said a reliable survey found that 89.4 percent of South Dakotans favor a ban on texting and driving.
He said while some argue that it’s like mandating that motorcycle riders wear helmets, the difference is that for bikers, it’s their “noggin” that is being put at risk in the name of personal freedom and individual rights. Texting drivers put everyone else on the road in danger.
“It is dangerous,” he said.
Vehle said texting drivers have their eyes off the road and their hands off the wheel and, most importantly, their minds off what they are supposed to being focused on.
Tjarks said with 39 states having banned texting and driving, it is time to get into step with other areas and show Mitchell is a “caring community.”
“Anything that acts as a deterrent” would create “a culture of awareness,” she said.
Olson said he wonders how an officer could tell who was texting, calling, setting music or checking their location. Allen then said he wonders if a ban on handheld devices is needed.
Vehle, whom the council asked to come forward and discuss the issue, said a careless driving citation can only be issued after a violation has occurred. He said Justin Iburg was cited after the fatal crash he caused in September 2010 near Mitchell.
“Jon Christensen is dead. (Iburg) got the ticket after the accident,” he said. “That is the problem.”
Vehle said there is a tremendous difference between someone eating a sandwich, which doesn’t distract their mind from the road, and texting. He also said far fewer people search through their glove box than text while they drive.
Mitchell Public Safety Director Lyndon Overweg said texting takes, on average, more than five seconds, which can be like driving the length of a football field.
Vehle said to get an idea what texting is like, consider closing one’s eyes for five seconds while driving at highway speed.
Barington said he doesn’t think it’s a local issue. He said while it failed during this session, the Legislature will act some year, and the city should wait for that.
“For the record, I do not favor texting and driving,” Barington said. “Enforceability is where we’re going to get into this issue.”
Olson said as a former legislator, he feels local bans could be a “double-edged sword.” It may lead some legislators to feel the cities are taking care of the matter.
“I’m going to take that risk,” said Vehle, who said he just wants fewer people texting and driving.
“I think a distracted driving statute, where it would be up to the discretion of the officer ... it would seem to me that a distracted driver ordinance would provide all the benefits,” Olson said.
City Attorney Carl Koch and Carlson, who is a lawyer, said they are unsure how a distracted driving ban differs from a reckless driving law.
“I think it’s something that needs to be done on the state level,” Carlson said. “I do not support it on the city level. I don’t think it’s going to do any good.”
“This is too vague, too much gray area,” Barington said. “I think this is a state law, not a city piecemeal thing.”
Tjarks said she doesn’t feel the city is prohibited from acting to protect its citizens by the Legislature’s failure to act. Instead of thinking that the city’s “hands are tied,” she said it’s time for the city to act.
“I think we have to take that first step,” Tjarks said.
She said she was not on the council when the council decided to table the issue in September, and everyone she spoke with then thought the council should have acted. It may not stop everyone from texting behind the wheel, she said, but it will make a difference.
Doescher said it’s like seat belts, where usage had to be prodded along with laws.
Today, the vast majority of people use them.
“That’s my point,” Doescher said. “You have to start somewhere.”
One private citizen, Jodie Cain-Lambert, spoke to the council. Her brother-in-law, Jon Christensen, was killed in a 2010 crash when Justin Iburg, who was texting as he drove a pickup, slammed into Christensen’s motorcycle when Christensen was parked in a construction zone.
Cain-Lambert said the council heard a lot of statistics during its debate.
“My family is a statistic,” she said. “I fully believe if we had no texting, my brother-in-law would be here today.”