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City Beat: Council considers ‘distracted driving’ ban

Proposed code supplants state bar on texting while driving by curbing mention of ‘texting’

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Motorists in Springfield could soon face fines under a proposed ordinance to further criminalize distracted driving within city limits.

Springfield City Council is expected to vote May 21 on the proposed ordinance that would legitimize “careless and distracted driving” as a primary reason for law enforcement officials to flip on their emergency lights.

During the May 7 meeting, council members voiced mixed feelings on the proposal.

Mayor Ken McClure offered the most rebuttal, namely on a state pre-emption that disallows local governments from enacting stiffer penalties on texting while driving.

“If we are pre-empted from doing a restriction on texting,” McClure said, “how can I be stopped, then, under this ordinance?”

Current state law pre-empts local police from ticketing drivers older than 21 for texting or using a hand-held mobile devices while driving, other than commercial drivers. The proposed city ordinance, however, doesn’t specifically name texting as an infraction.

“I reread this twice before I came in here, and I don’t see the word ‘texting’ anywhere in there,” Springfield Police Department Chief Paul Williams told McClure, defending the ordinance.

“I’m not going to stop you for texting,” Williams added. “I’m going to stop you for being distracted while operating your motor vehicle.”

Distracted driving would mean “any conduct” causing motorists’ “vision or attention to be obscured, diminished or directed away from the path of travel,” according to the proposed ordinance.

Other possible infractions specifically include “using a mirror to engage in grooming, reading anything ... other than operation information displayed on a motor vehicle’s gauges and equipment,” or “turning one’s head substantially away from the path of travel to observe things in the motor vehicle or outside of the motor vehicle but contrary to the path of travel,” the ordinance reads.

Drivers, meanwhile, would still be allowed “reasonable use” of devices “being used solely for navigation purposes,” according to the ordinance. That could include phones with map applications, McClure contested.

“My reservation on this is that I feel there is too much subjective discretion,” he said. “When we passed our primary seatbelt law, you either are or are not wearing your seatbelt.”

For distracted driving, guilty drivers would lose two points from their license, as well as face a $225 maximum fine for infractions that don’t cause an accident, said Ragan Wright, an assistant city prosecutor who presented the proposed ordinance at the meeting.

Wright said a $1,000 maximum fine would be imposed for infractions that cause accidents. An approved careless and distracted driving clause would come atop the city’s current prohibition on “careless and imprudent” driving.

Among those who appeared to support the measure, Councilman Craig Hosmer said the additional code could provide an important educational tool for local drivers.

“A C&I just says you’re not operating on the highest degree of care,” Hosmer said. “You talk about being unclear, that’s state law and current city ordinance.

“This [ordinance] gives us the ability to direct people, to inform people, on what we mean when we say, ‘Focus your attention on the road in front of you, where your focus should be.’”

In other business May 7, council:

• voted unanimously to move forward on seeking bids for a planned $2.3 million project to restore the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge;

• declared the city’s intent to annex 1.3 acres of commercial property at 3661 W. Sunshine St., at one time a pre-owned car lot;

• approved with a 7-1 vote a redevelopment plan and related property-tax abatement for a four-story, 17-unit multifamily apartment complex at 600-610 E. Harrison St., as proposed by Rosa Capital Group LLC (Hosmer voted against the plan); and

• approved unanimously a roughly $531,000 contract for Flat Creek Excavation LLC to construct sanitary sewers near Eldon Avenue and San Fernando Drive on the city’s northwest side.

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