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Cheyenne, Wyo., may repeal limit on drivers' use of cellphones

Some residents rose up in anger after the city banned talking on a hand-held device while driving. Such a reversal would be a U.S. first.

October 21, 2009|DeeDee Correll | Correll writes for The Times.

DENVER — Cheyenne, Wyo., City Councilman Jim Brown, thinking it was time his city joined the national movement to keep drivers from being distracted by their hand-held cellphones, steered an ordinance banning the practice into law last month.

Now he's getting an earful from outraged Wyomingites.

"We have the right to bear a cellphone," said M. Lee Hasenauer, 49, who collected more than 3,500 signatures for a petition against the ordinance. If the city clerk validates at least 2,800, officials must put the ordinance to a public vote or repeal it.

If the effort -- dubbed "Can You Hear Me Now?" -- succeeds, Cheyenne will become the first city in the nation to enact and then retract such a cellphone ban, said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Seven states, including California, and a dozen cities have banned driving while talking on a hand-held phone. California and 17 other states and the District of Columbia prohibit texting while driving as well.

In Cheyenne -- where motorists admitted using cellphones in 50 out of 2,900 crashes last year -- the new ordinance bans texting or otherwise using a hand-held phone, although using a headset is acceptable. The first offense carries a $125 fine. After a monthlong grace period in which three dozen violators were issued warnings, police began issuing tickets last week.

City Councilman Don Pierson, who argued against the ordinance, thinks police shouldn't be allowed to stop a driver for a behavior that hasn't caused a traffic problem.

"If I'm driving down the road, minding my own business and talking on my cellphone, leave me alone," said Pierson, a former police officer who said he was besieged with calls against the ordinance.

Others likewise chafe at the notion of being told what to do.

"Local State and Federal Government thinks it can shove something down our throats when we are not paying attention," one resident commented on a message board on the website of the Wyoming Tribune Eagle newspaper.

"I was raised in Wyo . . . the state used to pride itself in personal freedoms," wrote another.

To Hasenauer, it also was a matter of becoming too much like another Western state.

"This was California law, word for word. That's what people are in an uproar about," said Hasenauer, who doesn't believe talking on a cellphone while driving is dangerous, although he acknowledges that texting is.

"My eyes are on the road all the time," he said, adding that hands-free devices can be unreliable. He needs his phone to keep track of his five children, he added. "This is technology that has made life a lot better. I don't see the crisis about cellphones."

Yet supporters also have been vociferous, citing their concerns about safety.

"Anybody that thinks blabbing on their cell is fine while driving is sick," a reader wrote on the Tribune Eagle site.

"They don't care about anybody but themselves and they could care less who they run into," another agreed.

Brown said many people had contacted him to express their support, and if the petition is deemed sufficient, he favors holding a special election -- at a cost of up to $50,000 -- to let voters settle the issue.

If the ordinance stands, the question will be whether it will cause any real change, said Rader of the insurance institute.

"There isn't much evidence that [cellphone bans are] very effective at getting people to put down their phones," he said.

Jurisdictions such as Washington, D.C., that have implemented sustained, heavily publicized enforcement have had more success changing driver behavior than have others, such as New York, Rader said.

In Cheyenne, Brown thinks the ordinance has already had an effect. He used to see someone on a cellphone in one of every five cars, he said.

"Now I see one out of 25 or 30," he said.

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