Hearing on city cell phone ban gets no response

No members of the public showed up Tuesday evening for a special meeting of Marietta City Council’s police and fire committee to discuss legislation regulating the use of cell phones and other wireless communication devices while driving in the city.

The ordinance, which bans texting or talking on hand-held cell phones or other devices while operating a motor vehicle, is scheduled for introduction during Thursday’s regular council meeting at 7:30 p.m. in the community building at Lookout Park.

Councilman Steve Thomas, D-3rd Ward, who chairs the police and fire committee, said there are too many drivers talking on cell phones while operating their vehicles.

“I think this legislation will be a good move for the city,” he said. “There are also people with disabilities who may be in wheelchairs, or pedestrians and the elderly who can be placed in real danger when people text and drive.”

City law director Paul Bertram III said the proposed city legislation would supersede the current state law governing the use of hand-held wireless communication devices while driving.

The city and state laws do not apply to wireless communication devices that can be operated hands-free by voice activation or other means.

While Ohio law makes any use of hand-held communications devices by drivers between the ages of 15 and 17 while operating a vehicle a primary offense, the same violation by adult drivers 18 years and older is only considered a secondary offense.

That means an adult has to be committing another offense, like speeding or having a missing tail light, etc., before he or she could be additionally cited for talking or texting on a hand-held device.

“The city ordinance makes texting or talking on a hand-held phone while driving a second-degree misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $750 and up to 90 days in jail for a first offense,” Bertram said.

He noted a second violation of the proposed law could include up to a $1,000 fine and 180-day jail term, adding that any penalties would be assessed through Marietta Municipal Court.

Mayor Joe Matthews initially suggested the ban on drivers texting and talking on cell phones within the city limits during a council meeting in August. Since then the city administration, law director and council have been working to develop the necessary legislation, drawing on similar measures enacted in other Ohio cities.

The ordinance will be introduced Thursday and will go through three readings before council members can vote on adoption of the measure in December.

“But strict enforcement of the ordinance would probably not go into effect for at least 90 days after Ja. 1,” Bertram said, explaining that the city would have to erect signs on all roadways entering the city to notify drivers that it’s illegal to text or talk on a hand-held device while driving in Marietta.

“Within that 90-day period police will issue citations for violation of the ordinance, but only warning tickets will be issued during that time,” he said.

If the legislation is passed in December, penalties for violations would likely become effective after March 31.

Councilman Tom Vukovic, D-4th Ward, said the ordinance may help reduce texting and talking while driving.

“But it’s not going to solve the whole problem,” he said. “And I’m not going to feel any safer on the road because of this legislation.”

Vukovic asked Marietta Police Chief Brett McKitrick how many tickets have been issued due to texting and talking while driving since the state law became effective earlier this year.

“None that I know of,” McKitrick answered.

He has noted it’s often difficult for officers to tell whether a driver is texting while driving, and adult drivers have to be committing some secondary offense before they can be pulled over and cited for a texting violation.

But Councilman Roger Kalter, D-1st Ward, an avid bicyclist, said something has to be done about the issue.

“I’m really concerned. If you’re riding a bicycle or are a pedestrian you’re in real danger,” he said, adding that drivers talking on cell phones may not be paying attention to others sharing the road.