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Cellphones and driving gaining council attention


Concerns about the safety of using cellphones while driving, seen in new laws in cities such as Billings and in some bills in the state Legislative session, have reached Havre.

Havre's Ordinance Committee Wednesday began talking about the need for, and approaches toward, limiting automotive cellphone use.

Police Chief Jerry Nystrom said at the meeting that he has seen a growing need for a law.

"From what we have found, more and more accidents are attributable to cellphones," Nystrom said. "There's a significant rise."

The most favored idea would be to make using a handheld electronic device while driving a primary offense, one for which police could pull a driver over.

"If it's a secondary offense, it doesn't really help us prevent anything, "Nystrom said.

Val Murri, whose voice at meetings over the past few months has brought attention to the issue, said he had been watching the state's progress towards such a law, but had been disappointed.

"They watered the bill down so pathetically, " Murri said. "It had no meat or potatoes."

He complained that it had been whittled to targeting texting specifically, which Nystrom said would be more trouble than it's worth.

"If you limit it to texting, we'd have to get into investigative subpoenas, seize the phone, get the phone records to prove they were texting at the time, " Nystrom said.

Councilman Allen "Woody" Woodwick showed up to the meeting, though not on the committee, to voice his support for the proposed rule, after he was involved in a serious accident on his motorcycle with a texting driver.

"I had two discs removed from my neck because of that, " Woodwick said. "As a bus driver, I've seen people blow through my red lights while texting."

The discussion focused also on the precedent set with the Billings law, which makes using a cellphone a primary offense, and one punishable with around a $300 fine.

City Prosecutor Tammi Barkus said that they really went all out, with public service announcements and signs displayed all over town about the new rule. She said the program has been effective. So much so, she said she always immediately stops talking on her cellphone while driving when she gets into Billings.

Councilwoman Janet Tretheway wondered if cellphones are really the problem, or just a specific set of distractions that make driving unsafe, including small animals, eating or items like drink bottles rolling around on the car floor.

Committee Chair Andrew Brekke said that a lot of those are different.

"All things can be distracting. Whether it's purposeful is the issue, " Brekke said.

The committee set another meeting on Wednesday, April 6, at 5:45 p. m, to discuss the issue further.


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