Law part of growing debate on driving

NORTH BEND - A new driving ordinance in North Bend has given the city a role in what is becoming a national debate about vehicle safety and responsibility.

The ordinance, which can fine drivers up to $300 if they engage in a distracting activity while driving, was passed by the North Bend City Council at its Dec. 18 meeting by a vote of 4-1. The dissenting vote came from Jim Gildersleeve, whose term expired at the end of 2001.

Councilman Ed Carlson, who initiated the ordinance, took a majority of the wording from a similar "inattentive driving" ordinance that passed last August in Sandy, Utah.

Officials in the Salt Lake City suburb said the law is a "secondary offense," meaning that drivers will not be pulled over just because they are talking on their cellular phone or are doing other things that could cause their eyes to wander from the road.

"It's not something we planned on using a lot," said Sandy Police Lt. Kevin Thacker. "It was just another resource, another tool to encourage safe driving."

Even more restrictive is an ordinance that goes into effect this year in Santa Fe, N.M., that bans cell phones outright in the hands of drivers. The Santa Fe City Council passed an amendment that specifically included cell phones to an existing New Mexico state law that prohibited any activity in a car that takes away from the driver's ability to safely operate it.

"We haven't really had any issues with it," said Santa Fe Deputy Police Chief Beverly Lennen. "Initially there was some trepidation among drivers who felt like it was too much, but through education that has died down. They know [talking on a cell phone is] something they shouldn't be engaged in while they are driving."

Although numerous cities throughout the nation have similar laws to both Sandy and Santa Fe, North Bend is the first city in Washington to pass an ordinance addressing driving and doing something else. The city of Spokane considered a cell-phone ordinance last year, but it never got beyond passing conversation among city officials.

Larry Winner, senior assistant city attorney, said Spokane's traffic codes were modeled after Washington state law, which requires all traffic codes in Washington to be uniform. A new code could have caused a problem with uniformity.

It's likely that the North Bend City Council has not heard the last of the inattentive driving ordinance. Carlson was interviewed by numerous state and national media outlets in the days following its passage. Not all feedback he received about the new law was positive, but he said he has no regrets about his actions.

"I got a couple of nasty e-mails," Carlson said. "But I feel better about it as time passes."

Carlson said he worries there is still a misunderstanding about the ordinance, with residents believing there are police out looking to pull over those who are doing more than two things at once while driving.

"If you can drive and use a cell phone, then this ordinance will not affect you," he said.

Councilman Mark Sollitto, who argued against the ordinance when it was being discussed, said he plans to bring it back before the council to revise it.

Sollitto said the language of the ordinance, which covers everything from cell-phone use to talking to children sitting in the back seat of a vehicle, is too vague and gives the government too much power.

"As a parent, I think that it is an infringement on public privacy, and that is a place where the government shouldn't be going" he said.

The councilman contends that North Bend is not the arena to settle the problem of inattentive driving.

"This is an issue of statewide significance and should be addressed at the state level," Sollitto said.

While inattentive driving laws are debated at the municipal and state levels, they are good news to national groups pushing for stricter regulations. Patricia Pena of Pennsylvania, founder of Advocates for Cell Phone Safety, said a majority of Americans are on the side of those wanting laws to curb dangerous activities on the roads.

"Every single public opinion poll shows that anywhere from 62 to 85 percent of the public is in favor of restricting the use of cell phones," she said.

Pena, whose daughter was killed in an accident where the driver was talking on a cell phone, said that although a $300 fine may not bring a loved one back, the North Bend ordinance should cause people to think about what they do behind the wheel of an automobile.

"It you are driving and talking on the phone and you kill my child, I'll be damn glad that the North Bend law is in place to hold you accountable," she said.

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