Last updated: February 21, 2017
Distracted driving update: State Rep. Virginia Court’s attempt to ban texting & driving in Montana was shot down by the House Judiciary Committee in late February. The vote went along party lines, with all Republicans opposed. Fines would have started at $50. Her similar 2016 plan cleared the House but stalled in the Senate. Montana is one of a handful of states without any kind of ban on text messaging by all drivers.
A freshman legislator filed a 2017 measure that would have prohibited local authorities from restricting use of cell phones and similar devices by drivers. Rep. Jeremy Trebas says distracted driving laws “don’t work.” The bill advanced in committee but was shot down by the full House on Jan. 24.
At least 10 Montana cities have laws against distracted driving: Missoula, Bozeman, Billings, Helena, Whitefish, Butte-Silver Bow, Hamilton, Great Falls, Baker and Columbia Falls. Countywide bans in Butte-Silver Bow and Anaconda-Deer Lodge.
Current statewide prohibitions:
Distracted driving legislation (2017):
House Bill 194: Would bar municipalities from placing restrictions on use of electronic communications devices by drivers. Approved by the Judiciary Committee in a 10-9 vote of Jan. 20. Rejected by the House in a 37-63 vote of Jan. 24. (Trebas)
HB 380: Would outlaw texting & driving in Montana. Fines: $50, then $100, then $200. No points. Tabled in Judiciary Committee in an 8-11 vote of Feb. 20. (Court)
LC1717: “Revise laws on distracted driving.” Draft on hold as of early February. (Court)
Distracted driving notes (2017):
House Republicans who rejected the texting & driving ban cited enforceability, among other reasons. “There’s no way for a police officer to tell the difference on whether they’re entering their password or calling a number on their phone,” said state Rep. Barry Usher.
Supporters of the texting ban included AAA, the Montana League of Cities and Towns, the Highway Patrol and the state Department of Transportation. Testimony came from family members of some distracted driving victims.
2016 distracted driving legislation:
House Bill 297: Would outlaw texting while driving. Includes email. Fine: $50 (first offense), then $100, then $200. No points. Allows for stronger local laws. Approved by the Judiciary Committee in a 16-5 vote of Feb. 13. Approved by the full House in a 53-46 vote of March 11. Approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 20. Full Senate second reading “indefinitely postponed” via 29-18 vote of March 28. (Court)
LC0230: “Generally revise traffic and criminal offenses related to distracted driving.” No detail and draft “on hold.” (Taylor)
2015 distracted driving notes:
Almost 65 percent of drivers in Montana are covered by local distracted driving laws, according to the DOT. The texting ban working its way through the Legislature would allow for stronger local laws.
Bozeman ticketing for distracted driving was down significantly in 2014, to 102 citations.
A Missoula councilman is pushing for a review of the city’s distracted driving ordinance to consider emerging wireless technologies such as the Apple Watch. The devices “have the potential to be even more distracting than handheld cellphones,” Jordan Hess wrote.
The city of Helena has upped its fine for use of a handheld electronic device while driving to $105. “There are far too many repeat offenders,” a municipal court judge said in announcing the change. Helena’s distracted driving ordinance first went into effect in late 2001. The city reports almost 300 tickets were written in 2014’s first half.
2013 distracted driving legislation (dead):
Senate Bill 390: Would prohibit use of handheld electronic communications devices such as cell phones while driving in Montana. Hands-free OK. Having the device in “immediate physical possession” would be outlawed as well (apparently this means touching it). Fine: $50 (first offense), then $100 (second offense), then $200. Additional $100 fine for committing a moving violation while using the wireless device. No points. Died in Highways and Transportation Committee as of April 24. (Kaufmann)
2013 distracted driving notes:
State Sen. Christine Kaufmann’s ill-fated distracted driving bill of 2013 permitted hands-free use of smartphones and similar devices by drivers 18 years old and above. Younger drivers would not have been able to use cell phones or text message while behind the wheel. The bill sought to close potential loopholes by outlawing having the devices “in the person’s immediate physical possession,” which apparently means touching them. Kaufmann’s bill failed in 2011 as well.
More than half of Montana’s high school students admitted to texting or emailing while driving in a recent 30-day period, according to a study taken by the school system. The 56 percent who said they engaged in the distracted driving behavior marked a 6 percent increase over the last Office of Public Instruction study, done in 2011.
Missoula’s ban on use of handheld cell phones while driving went into effect Feb. 5. Fines range from $100 to $500. The 10-1 Missoula City Council vote came Nov. 5, 2012. Specifically, the new law (amendment) prohibits “the use of mobile telephones and other electronic communication devices.” It also applies to bicyclists. Councilman Dave Strohmaier pushed for the ban for several years. In 2009, the council OK’d a cell phone ban, but the mayor vetoed it.
“I think we saved lives by passing the (new) cellphone ordinance,” Missoula Councilman Alex Taft told the Missoulian. “Not as many as if we had a full ban, but I think it’s great progress.” Another councilman had warned that Missoula was “eclipsed” by the other major cities in Montana with handheld cell phone bans.
Hamilton’s law against use of handheld electronic devices while driving inspired as many as 60 tickets traffic stops and a half dozen tickets, the police chief said in late February 2013. The ordinance went into effect July 5 with enforcement beginning two months later. Despite local concerns over enforcement, “The ordinance is going fine,” the chief told the Missoulian. Councilman Al Mitchell had urged the city to step up “instead of kicking and screaming and being Montanans about our individual rights.”
2012 distracted driving notes:
Kalispell’s City Council shot down a ban on use of handheld electronic devices while driving in city limits. The 6-3 vote came Dec. 17, 2012. “The state needs to do it,” one opponent said. Councilman Jim Atkinson pushed for the legislation.
The Missoula City Council approved a ban on drivers’ use of handheld cell phones on Nov. 5, 2012. The city already has a ban on texting while driving.
Hamilton’s law against use of handheld electronic devices while driving went into effect July 5, with a 60-day warning period following. (see 2013 notes)
Great Falls police began writing tickets in September under the city ordinance against motorists text messaging and using handheld cell phones. “We do not want to be a statistic,” City Attorney James Santoro told commissioners in June, before final approval. The ordinance “will probably save some lives,” a commissioner said. Fines $100 for the first offense and up to $500 for repeat offenders. The Great Falls distracted driving ordinance also applies to bicyclists. The City Council rejected a similar law several years ago.
Bozeman’s ban on texting and handheld cell phones went into effect Jan. 17, and police began writing tickets a month later. Fines $100. Seventy drivers were stopped and warned during the monthlong grace period that ended in mid-February. The law also applies to bicyclists using public highways.
Helena’s ordinance prohibiting motorists and bicyclists from using handheld cell phones and similar electronic devices went into effect Dec. 7, 2011. Hands-free OK. Enforcement is primary with $100 tickets.
2011 distracted driving legislation (dead):
Senate Bill 251: Would ban use of handheld cell phones and other mobile electronics devices while driving in Montana. Text messaging included. Hands-free OK. Fines: $100, no points. Latest action: Approved and amended by the Senate Transportation Committee. Rejected twice by the Senate on March 18. Dead. (Kaufmann)
2011 cell phone, text messaging notes:
The state Senate rejected a 2011 bill that would have prohibited use of handheld cell phones and text messaging while driving in Montana. It had been approved twice by the Transportation Committee. Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, was the sponsor.
Bozeman city commissioners voted Nov. 28, 2011, to outlaw cell phone use and texting while driving. The distracted driving law took effect Jan. 17, 2012. After Feb. 17, $100 tickets will be handed out. Also prohibited are GPS data entry, and the use of various handheld devices and laptop computers. Bicyclists also are barred from using handheld cell phones while on a highway.
Helena city commissioners approved a ban on all cell phone use and texting while driving Nov. 7. It went into effect Dec. 7 and the warning period ends Jan. 7. A new amendment to the legislation allowing hands-free operation removed the original prohibition on all cell phone use by drivers. Bicycles included. Fines top out at $100. Commissioner Dan Ellison pushed for the law and later introduced the hands-free amendment after hearing public feedback. (Read the Helena distracted driving ordinance.)
Billings’ distracted driving law yielded almost 200 tickets in its first year, with twice as many warnings issued.
Whitefish’s ban on use of handheld cell phones went into effect Sept. 20. Police said their goal “is to educate the public and prevent violations rather than having a hard and fast rule dictating officer action.” No warning period. “It’s been well publicized,” the police chief said Sept. 7. The law specifically bans the touching of a handheld communications device while driving, including GPS units.
Half of Montana high school students surveyed admitted to text messaging while driving in the past month, the state Office of Public Instruction reports. 53 percent reported using a cell phone while driving. The survey was released in July and conducted in February.
The Butte-Silver Bow Commission voted April 6 to ban the use of handheld cell phones while behind the wheel. The ordinance went into effect May 6, with ticketing as of June 16.
SB 251 sponsor Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, rounded up supporters for her bill such as the Montana Highway Patrol, the Montana Police Protective Association and mobile phone carrier Verizon Wireless. The groups provided testimony in favor of the distracted driving legislation at a Jan. 3 hearing. The state Libertarian Party chairman was the sole opposing voice, calling it a bid for revenues and just “feel-good legislation.” The bill eventually failed.
State Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-District 3, filed a 2011 bill draft request (LC0461) titled “Include distracted driving in other driving offenses.” The draft request status was changed to “on hold” as of Nov. 23, 2010. Tutvedt sits on the transportation committee.
2010 cell phone, text messaging notes:
The Montana Highway Patrol reports that in 2009, almost 100 deaths were linked to cell phone use by drivers. That compares with 63 deaths blamed on drunken driving. Commissioner Dan Ellison is doing the pushing.
Billings has banned text messaging and use of handheld cell phones while driving in city limits. Includes motorcycles and bicycles. Cell phones and related handheld devices were added to the current distracted driving ordinance in a City Council vote July 26, 2010. Final approval came Aug. 23 and the distracted driving prohibitions went into effect Oct. 31. Fines typically $110 but can be up to $300 (first offense) then up to $500. As of April 2011, 50 warnings and 10 citations have been written under the law.
2009 legislation (dead):
SB 278: Use of handheld cell phones and “mobile electronic devices” would be prohibited for all drivers. Cites PDAs, text-messaging devices, video game players and laptop. Allows for use of cell phones with hands-free listening and speaking devices. This bill marked “died in process” in late April 2009 after it cleared the Highways and Transportation Committee.
HB 49: Would have prohibited use of cell phones and text messaging devices on highways near most cities and in a school zone. Tabled in committee on Feb. 6, 2009.
2009 distracted driving notes:
The city of Missoula banned texting while driving, effective July 1, 2009. Fines range from $100 to $350. The mayor vetoed a cell phone ban that had been approved by city lawmakers. The Missoula text messaging ban also applies to cyclists. As of early May 2011, 16 citations have been handed out under the law.
A plan to prohibit cell phone use by drivers died in committee in April 2007. There was no Montana legislative session in 2008.