Mayor vetoes ban on texting while driving

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SANDPOINT — Mayor Gretchen Hellar has vetoed an ordinance that would have restricted text messaging while driving within the city limits.

Hellar invoked her right as mayor to veto the ordinance on New Year’s Eve, a day before it would have taken effect.

Hellar said in a letter to the council that she was moving to interdict the ordinance because of its enforceability, the presence of sufficient legislation that already exists and costs associated with posting signs at city limits to advise motorists of the local rule.

“Although some may feel that passing unenforceable ordinances is a way of making a statement, I feel that it undermines the seriousness that should be ascribed to any ordinance we pass,” Hellar wrote. “Passing laws is a serious responsibility of city council and should not be used just to make a political statement.”

Outgoing Councilwoman Helen Newton proposed an ordinance requiring motorists, cyclists and skateboard riders to use hands-free devices when they’re under way and using cell phones. The legislation would have prohibited text messaging while driving.

The ordinance was narrowly defeated with a tie-breaking vote cast by Hellar on Dec. 16. Another departing council member, John O’Hara, resurrected portions of the ordinance on Dec. 21.

O’Hara’s version banned text messaging while behind the wheel, and prohibited any cell phone use by drivers with learner’s permits or if they’re under instruction.

Hellar said she could not support the ordinance because she feels the matter is best legislated at the state or federal level. Moreover, drivers distracted by their cell phones could be ticketed under the city’s inattentive driving statute.

Sandpoint Police Chief Mark Lockwood has said there has been 1,297 crashes where inattention was listed as the primary cause, but only 11 cases — or 1 percent — were attributed to cell phone use.

Hellar also expressed concern that attempts to enforce the ordinance would lead to hostility toward the police department, which some argue already has a penchant for being overzealous in enforcing the law. Last month, a group entitled “I Hate Sandpoint Cops” formed on the social networking site Facebook.

Although she does not support the ordinance, Hellar said she takes the issue seriously and bolstered the assertion by immediately implementing a policy which forbids city employees from using their phones while driving a city vehicle unless there is an emergency.

“It is my hope that through education and example, we can make Sandpoint a safer place for walkers, bikers and drivers,” Hellar said in the letter.

The City Council is slated to take up the mayor’s veto when it meets on Jan. 20. The council can override the veto if four of the body of six elect to do so.

But the ordinance’s original author does not believe the veto will be vanquished. Newton points out that councilmen Stephen Snedden and John Reuter do not support a local ordinance and Councilwoman Carrie Logan is the only holdover who voted in favor of it.

“It’s history,” said Newton.

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