Bangor steps back from cell phone ban proposal

Posted Jan. 13, 2009, at 9:41 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The city took a step backward Tuesday from the topic of banning cell phone use while driving when the City Council’s government operations committee voted to table the discussion until May.

After a 30-minute discussion among committee members, city staff and Frank Carr, a Bangor resident who approached the city about a ban, committee chairman Hal Wheeler said Bangor should delay action until it gets more data.

In that time, Wheeler said, it’s also possible that the state could take action on the hot-button issue. Four bills already have been submitted by members of the 124th Legislature that deal with some measure of restriction on cell phone use while driving.

“It would be prudent for us to wait for [the state], and I’m very interested to see what the state does,” Police Chief Ron Gastia said.

Gastia said if the state — or the city — does come up with a law, it will be tricky because of the difficulty of enforcement. He also said there are no concrete data on how many traffic accidents or fatalities can be traced to cell phone use.

City Solicitor Norman Heitmann agreed that the city should not “jump the gun” on sending the cell phone ban to the full City Council.

“But it’s certainly a worthwhile conversation to have,” he said.

Carr said there are tons of data that indicate cell phones are a distraction, and he presented some to committee members. None was specific to Maine, though.

“I’m not objecting to cell phones,” he said. “They’re great, especially in a rural state like Maine.”

But Carr said the public safety concerns outweigh the convenience.

“I came to the [city] because I know you have a history of wanting to do the right thing,” he said, in a reference to Bangor’s recent ban on smoking in vehicles while children are present, a city ordinance that eventually led to a statewide ban.

Much to the surprise of Wheeler and other members of the government operations committee, no other members of the public spoke on the issue, either for or against.

The city would be wise to keep a close eye on any potential legislation in Augusta that would make any Bangor ordinance redundant, Heitmann said. It’s probable that any submitted bills regarding a cell phone ban while driving would be consolidated into one, but there is no timetable on discussion of potential legislation.

Councilor Geoffrey Gratwick suggested that, while Carr was brave for bringing the matter to light, he would rather see a staff recommendation before councilors act. Gratwick also said he looked forward to debating the issue with pleasure and dread.

“This is a Pandora’s box if ever there was one,” he said.

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