Ban on drivers’ use of phones weighed

Commission tables plans to raise fines for using devices behind wheel

Enforceable or not, a full-scale ban on using cell phones while driving in Lawrence could be just months away.

“I have questions about enforceability,” said Scott Miller, a city attorney. “It would be difficult to enforce a full ban.”

Still, the Traffic Safety Commission voted Monday to table two possible ordinances that would have added penalties for using cell phones while driving.

Instead, the commission will vote in July whether to recommend a citywide ban on using any wireless device – cell phone, two-way pager or otherwise – while operating a vehicle.

The decision came after a tie vote by the six members of the commission in attendance Monday to create an additional traffic violation for causing an accident while using a phone or other wireless device. Two members of the nine-person commission were absent on Monday. One seat is vacant.

If that item passed, city staff and commissioners worried that it would be too difficult to enforce.

“We would have some untruthful drivers,” Tracy Russell, a Lawrence Police officer, said at the meeting. “The enforcement would be pretty minimal.”

But some commissioners thought the item – which would have recommended that people causing accidents while on the phone pay double the fine, from $60 to $120 – could work as a deterrent from driving while chatting.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” chairman John Ziegelmeyer said.

But rather than sending that item to the City Commission without a recommendation, the item was tabled after the commission came within moments of voting on a proposal to ban all city drivers from using phones while behind the wheel.

The item came to a head after commissioner Carol Bowen motioned to remove language from a second recommendation that would have restricted a cell phone ban to drivers under the age of 18.

Without the language, the item would have recommended to the City Commission that anyone found on the phone while driving would have been subject to a fine.

Several members of the public spoke in favor of a full ban.

“It doesn’t make a lot of difference how old they are,” Lawrence resident Bob Lewis told the commission.

Richard Heckler seconded the motion, but the issue came to a halt when city staff mentioned problems with the idea, including many professions that require people to use phones while driving on the job.

The commission gave Miller 60 days to hammer out a new plan that would allow professionals who require phones and other communication devices to use them in their vehicles, while banning use for other Lawrence residents.

The commission is expected to vote again on the issue July 3. If approved, the recommendation will go to the City Commission later this year.