Aldermen defeat measure to outlaw it for all ages
By Steve Bowman
Editor, The Brentwood Spirit
Despite pleas from Brentwood’s police chief and a resident who believes she was nearly killed by a distracted driver who was texting, a measure to outlaw texting while driving within city limits was narrowly defeated by the board of aldermen Monday night.
Though state law already prohibits texting while driving for those 21 years of age and younger, the Brentwood ordinance would have outlawed the activity for all ages. It was defeated in a 5-3 vote in a meeting that attracted cameras from two St. Louis TV stations.
Voting in opposition to the ordinance were aldermen Lee Wynn, Anthony Harper, Keith Robertson, Patrick Toohey and Maureen Saunders. Voting in support of it were aldermen Thomas Kramer, Andy Leahy and Cindy Manestar. Mayor Pat Kelly also expressed support.
The ordinance would have prohibited driving in Brentwood while sending, reading or writing “a text message or electronic message” using “a hand-held electronic wireless communications device.” It would not have included “any device that is permanently embedded into the architecture and design of the motor vehicle,” nor on-board or after-market GPS devices. Also, the measure would not have applied to drivers who are parked or stopped.
Support for ordinance
The support for the ordinance was heartfelt. Said Brentwood Police Chief Dan Fitzgerald, “In my estimation I think this [texting while driving] is terrifying. We used to see people driving down the street 10 miles an hour and we figured they were drunk. Now they’re doing this [holds his cell phone in front of his face while punching buttons with his thumbs]. You see people weaving in and out of traffic down Brentwood Boulevard constantly.”
Speaking out in the public comment period of the meeting, before the ordinance was discussed, Brentwood resident Karen Meyer said she was nearly struck by a driver who was texting while driving through a red light on Brentwood Boulevard.
“My light had gone green, I was the first car, and fortunately I did a double take to my left,” said Meyer. “A huge, red SUV was oblivious to the fact that that light had gone red for him. If I had pulled out, I may not be standing here today. I was very fortunate. I saw him very plainly and he was doing this [acts as if she’s holding a cell phone in front of her face], he was reading something on top of his phone or whatever. So I do adamantly support the proposition.”
Brentwood’s public safety committee recommended passage of the ordinance. Kramer said the committee might have recommended it earlier but has delayed in hopes that the state legislature would pass an equivalent measure.
“I think the only harm in passing something like this at this juncture is that perhaps the state might have something in conflict with this in the future, and if so we’ll change it at that time,” Kramer said.
Questions and doubts
Several aldermen expressed doubts about the feasibility and effectiveness of a ban on texting while driving. Harper worried that it might be difficult to communicate the ordinance to drivers who enter Brentwood from municipalities that allow texting.
Harper and Toohey said they thought it would be hard to enforce.
“What if they’re using a smart phone for a different purpose?” said Toohey. “How will a police officer know whether they’re texting, or on Facebook, or sending an email?”
Fitzgerald responded by saying his officers would concentrate on stopping blatant displays of texting. He demonstrated the posture of a driver with both forearms on his steering wheel while holding a cell phone in front of his face and punching buttons with his thumbs.
“That’s what we’d enforce,” he said. “Obviously it would be really difficult for us to tell the difference between someone who is reading a text, physically texting [or] talking on the phone. But when we see somebody holding the phone up here with the thumbs moving, that’s what we would [enforce].”
Robertson asked Fitzgerald, “Why couldn’t you just ticket that person for dangerous driving?”
Fitzgerald responded, “We could. You could always find something. It’s just that it would be nice to have something [additional to charge them with]. I think at some point in time this will be state law and it will be a lot easier.”
Fitzgerald said other cities that ban driving while texting for all ages include Kirkwood, Manchester, Florissant, O’Fallon and St. John. But when Toohey asked, “Has this changed behavior for those municipalities?” there was no answer.
Saunders worried that the measure would be seen as a ploy for the city to make more money.
“I think the [emphasis] on the state level is to reduce the amount of income we get from tickets,” said Saunders. “I want to make sure that tickets are more for safety and not for revenue generating.”
That comment drew a quick response from City Administrator Bola Akande.
“This item was actually presented to public safety by the police chief because there was concern by the police chief and officers that they were beginning to see more people committing this kind of offense, texting while driving,” said Akande. “So this was their own initiative. It’s more focused on traffic safety for everyone on our streets and it has absolutely nothing to do with revenue generation.”
But resident Susan Ryan voiced a concern similar to Saunders’s in the public comment portion of the meeting.
“I do not dispute the concerns or the dangers about distracted drivers,” said Ryan. “However, adopting ordinances at a municipal level is arbitrary. Individual municipal ordinances and ticketing is the basis of a current controversy about the use of courts. This should be a state mandate and not a municipal issue as someone drives through our two square miles.”