042214-nws-council

The Rapid City Council approved a texting ban that allows police officers to stop a vehicle and issue a citation if the driver was texting.  

Photo illustration by Benjamin Brayfield, Journal staff

If a potential $100 fine isn't incentive enough to stop people from texting while driving in Rapid City, perhaps Jami Martin's personal story of deep loss may convince them.

During debate over a local texting-while-driving ban — which was passed unanimously Monday as a primary offense and will take effect this spring — Martin came forward to share how her two children were killed in a rollover wreck in August 2007 that Martin said was caused when her daughter was using a phone to text while driving.

Martin urged the council to pass the ban that is stronger than state law, which will make texting a secondary offense. A primary offense, like in Rapid City, will allow officers to pull drivers over for that action alone and ticket them; a secondary offense means a ticket can only be issued if the driver is pulled over for some other infraction.

Rapid City joined a handful of other South Dakota cities that have now passed their own local texting bans.

The unanimous vote came after Martin shared her pain over the 2007 wreck. According to newspaper archives, Martin's children — 16-year-old Rebecca "Becca Boo" Wasserburger and 20-year-old Anthony "Tony" Wasserburger — died together when Rebecca lost control while using her phone and over-corrected, causing their vehicle to roll over several times while driving home from North Dakota. She told the council that the text ban needed to be a primary offense.

"Really, Rapid City needs to go above and beyond what the state has decided to do," she told the council.

The state's secondary offense law takes effect July 1. But Rapid City Police Chief Steve Allender, who spearheaded the local texting ban, criticized the state law as weak.

"The state law does not address what it should and it doesn't give law enforcement personnel the tools they need to making driving safer," he said before the meeting. "If I could, I would go back and wave my magic wand and outlaw mobile phone use while driving with the exception of making a phone call."

Aside from making texting while driving a primary offense, Rapid City's code essentially mirrors state statute.

But not all were in favor. Local Attorney Robbie Rohl came before the city Legal and Finance Committee last week to warn that the city's text ban allows officers "unfettered" access to make traffic stops based only on assumption.

Allender flatly disagrees.

"It’s nonsense," he said. "If we were going to lie about a reason to stop a car, we can already do that. We don’t need a texting statute to do that. There are checks and balances with the court system and, frankly, we don’t need the extra works. This is not part of a government conspiracy to gain control of its citizens."

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Alderman Chad Lewis shared Allender's sentiment during the meeting. Lewis said that driving a car is a privilege and prohibiting drivers from texting while driving isn't a breach of personal rights.

"I think that any opposition to this — it's your right to oppose it — but I just don't think it's justified at this point," he said.

Under the new ordinance, drivers would be fined $100 for driving "within the city while using a handheld electronic wireless communication device to write, send, or read a text-based communication."

Drivers could still text while legally parked or to contact emergency officials. Making phone calls while driving is still legal as is the use of hands-free devices.

Allender said the police department will conduct a public education campaign to foster voluntary compliance, and warnings will be given for a while after the ordinance takes effect, which could be as early as mid-May.

"We’re going to have pamphlets to hand out," he said. "We are going to give warning tickets. We have already produced a public service announcement that's going to be broadcast before too long."

Contact John Lee McLaughlin at 394-8421 or john.mclaughlin@rapidcityjournal.com

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