Working out kinks in texting ban

After a full week of handing out citations, Marietta police are seeing very little decrease in the amount of city drivers using cell phones.

As of 1 p.m. Friday, the Marietta Police Department had issued 38 citations under the new law, which makes using a hand-held cell phone-or any other electronic communication device-while driving a minor misdemeanor offense, punishable by a fine of up to $150.

Many of the tickets were handed out during four-hour cell phone details Monday through Friday where one to two officers would specifically look for violators. Marietta Police Capt. Jeff Waite said he thought the high visibility presence would lead to numbers tapering off, but the department was still seeing plenty of cell phones in the hands of drivers Friday.

“Seems like about every five to seven drivers you see one on their cell phone,” said Patrolman Errol Kramer as he sat on Front Street watching for drivers disobeying the new hands-free law on Friday.

Reception to the city ordinance has been mixed. Marietta Mayor Joe Matthews said he has gotten only positive feedback on the law.

“I’ve had no complaints. In fact, being out in the public, I’ve had four people thank me for (it),” said Matthews of the law.

Waite said motorcyclists have been especially positive in their feedback toward the law.

“They’ve had so many people weave into their lane of travel talking on their cell phones,” he said.

But some drivers stopped have certainly pushed back, admitted Waite.

Passed March 6, the law had a two-week warning phase starting July 5, but many drivers still claim to be unaware of the change, said Kramer.

Depending on the circumstances, some drivers from outside the community are still being given warnings.

North Carolina resident Quinn Goff was one such driver Friday. In town for a wedding and borrowing a friend’s car, Goff was not aware that she was breaking the city’s ordinance by talking on the phone while driving.

“In North Carolina, you can’t text. But you can talk on your phone,” she said.

While Quinn agrees with the texting ban, she likes the distinction North Carolina has drawn on the issue.

“I think talking on your phone is OK,” she said.

Others still are concerned the law is not specific enough in its prohibition of cell phone use.

For example, Belpre resident Jonathan Hoselton said he did not see a difference between pushing the answer button on the phone to talk on speaker-which he was ticketed for Friday-and pushing an answer button connected to Bluetooth on a steering wheel, which is allowed under the law.

“It needs to be more defined. I can’t pick it up and hit the speaker phone button but I’d have to hit a button to answer Bluetooth. How is any of it 100 percent hands-free?” asked Hoselton.

Some drivers also claimed they were innocent of using their phones when stopped for it.

During the warning phase, one woman complained to the mayor’s office that a bystander-who was actually an officer in plain clothes-had mistaken some other action for texting.

Waite said the officers strive to be 100 percent certain of cell phone use before stopping someone for it.

“I want to see somebody manipulating the buttons or with the phone up to their ear,” he explained of his criteria for a stop.

But the woman’s complaint brings up an issue that Devola resident Mark Wurtzbacher has with the ordinance.

Even if it is not texting, other actions drivers take on a regular basis can be equally distracting, but totally legal.

“The only thing we’re addressing in Marietta is a cell phone. They can have a dog on their lap, they can be putting on makeup, you can have people with a book on the steering wheel reading. We’re not addressing those,” said Wurtzbacher.

A motorcyclist, Wurtzbacher whole-heartedly agrees that distracted driving needs to be addressed. But a more comprehensive law that targets other issues as well should be considered, he said.

“I’m not saying there’s not a need to cut down on distraction. Is a $150 fine for a single distraction the way to go? I don’t think so,” he said.

So far, two of the drivers have appeared in Marietta Municipal Court on the charge and been found guilty. Each were issued a $50 fine by Marietta Municipal Court Judge Janet Dyar Welch, said court administrator Jason Hamilton.

Welch can consider a variety of factors in issuing a fine, such as the statement of facts on the ticket, he said.