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Caution ahead: North Bend OKs driving ordinance

NORTH BEND - If you want to talk on the phone and drive through North Bend at the same time, you could face a stiff fine if your chatting causes a traffic infraction.

The North Bend City Council passed an ordinance at its meeting Tuesday, Dec. 11, that will allow the city to impose a fine of up to $300 to drivers who engage in a "distracting activity" while driving, which was defined as "an activity not related to the operation of the motor vehicle."

Although the ordinance was born out of concern for cellular phone use while driving, the new law covers everything from phone use to dealing with rowdy kids in the back seat. The list of distractions includes, among others, personal grooming, the use of certain electronics and interaction with pets.

Councilman Ed Carlson, who spearheaded the ordinance, said the law is another tool to help officers enforce safe driving. Since no officers will be staking out drivers who engage in distracting activities, Carlson said the law is meant only to discourage those who get in accidents as a result of such activity from doing it again.

"No one will be pulled over for driving with a cell phone," said Carlson.

Opposition and support for the ordinance had been vocal from the moment Carlson started to discuss such a law earlier this year. Carlson said there is a wealth of information arguing both sides of the issue, and that the middle ground is hard to find.

"Very few people straddle the fence on this issue," he said.

An amendment proposed by council members Mark Sollitto and Jim Gildersleeve that would have reduced the maximum fine from $300 to $50 was rejected, and the ordinance passed 4-1, with Gildersleeve giving the only dissenting vote.

"I find this offensive. Some people are quite capable of doing two to three things at once," Gildersleeve said. "This is ludicrous."

Councilman Mark Sollitto, who opposed the ordinance in discussion, concurred with Gildersleeve and said it takes away freedom and privacy from the driver.

"I trust people's ability to make good choices," he said. "I have trouble supporting this. This is a state issue."

Proponents of the ordinance were adamant that the new law was not going to stop anyone just for using a cell phone or putting on make-up while driving a car.

Councilwoman Elaine Webber likened the discussions to the debate concerning seatbelt laws, which although are of a great benefit to the lives of drivers, can be seen as an inconvenience to some who wear them. Since people are rarely pulled over for not wearing their seatbelts, she believes the same will happen with the new ordinance.

"I don't have any reason to say that this outlaws cell phones," Webber said.

Sgt. Grant Stewart of the King County Sheriff's Office substation in North Bend said the ordinance is a "secondary offense," and that a ticket would be given only if a car is stopped for some other traffic infraction.

"This will try to get motorists to make driving their primary focus," Stewart said. "We have become so distracted with other things that driving becomes secondary."

Paul Sullivan, a legal consultant for the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, suspected that the ordinance is the first of its kind in Washington.

"It's conceivable it's the first in the state," Sullivan said. "It's just too new of a concept."

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