Manhattan, Kansas, Lawmakers Vote to Ban Driving With Cell Phones

February 5, 2010

The days of drivers with a cell phone to their ear could be coming to an end in Manhattan, Kan., this summer.

City commissioners have unanimously approved a ban on handheld phones night, the ban to take effect July 1.

Commissioners left themselves a loophole to revisit the topic if the Kansas Legislature takes action that would be in conflict with the city’s ordinance during the current session.

“It seems to me that we have the opportunity to make a statement about the importance of this without making a full commitment to all the steps necessary to implement it immediately,” commissioner Bruce Snead said.

Adoption of the ordinance came despite the city staff’s recommendation that consideration of the matter be delayed. Mayor Bob Strawn accepted the July date in order to avoid unnecessary use of funds and resources for signs and education of an ordinance that could be changed by the state. Riley County Police Department director Brad Schoen said the delay would make things easier for the RCPD.

But both Strawn and commissioner Jim Sherow expressed “zero confidence” in the likelihood of state action. Three bills outlawing texting have been submitted in Topeka.

Commissioner Loren Pepperd was more optimistic, based on discussions he had with State Rep. Tom Hawk. Pepperd also voiced concern about Manhattan becoming the only city in Kansas to institute a ban, and said he would vote against the ordinance on second reading if the state does not act.

Hands-free phones or the use of speaker phone would still be allowed under the ordinance. Emergency operators and licensed two-way radio users are exempted, as are those placing calls for emergency purposes.

Schoen spoke to the commission briefly to clarify some comments he made at a work session in December that suggested RCPD would not enforce a cell phone ban. He said he had only intended to point out some potential problems in enforcement.

“We’re going to give this ordinance the same attention we do all the ordinances in the standard traffic ordinances,” he said. “We will enforce it where we think it’s applicable, certainly if it’s an issue in terms of driver error or being a part of some other violation or accident or something like that.”

The Legislature last year passed a law prohibiting use of cell phones by drivers who are not fully licensed; that law effect Jan. 1. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently banned text messaging for drivers of commercial trucks and buses.

“Even if this ends up being poorly enforced because of all the difficulties of doing it, if it saves one trip, just one trip to the emergency room, it’s well worth our time,” Sherow said. “We can educate the public in this area that this is a really dangerous way of driving.”

Six states and the District of Columbia, as well as some major cities including Chicago and Santa Fe, N.M., have approved bans on cell phones for drivers. A dozen other states have bans on text messaging.

Several studies have shown the correlation between accidents and cell phones, and enforcement has proven to be effective in reducing their use. However, a study released last week by the Highway Loss Data Institute showed bans have not created a reduction in crashes.

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