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Ban on talking, texting while driving goes forward

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Talking on a cell phone not in hands-free mode and texting while driving are well on the way to being banned in Rio Rancho.

Rio Rancho Governing Body members unanimously passed the first reading of an ordinance to that effect at their meeting Wednesday at City Hall. The ordinance must pass a second reading to take effect.

Under the ordinance, drivers couldn’t talk or send or receive text messages or other data from hand-held communication devices while in motion or stopped at a traffic signal or sign. The penalty would be $50.

The law allows drivers to use cell phones and the like in a hands-free mode or to communicate with police, firefighters, medical personnel or dispatchers during an emergency.

The ordinance doesn’t allow police to seize or search cell phones, except as elsewhere allowed in law, during related traffic stops.

Deputy Police Chief Dave Kent said state law prohibits texting and driving, and putting the prohibition in city law would allow officers to cite violations into municipal court, so the city would get the fine money, instead of into state magistrate court.

Rio Rancho resident David Baldwin said the $50 fine was so small that it would function like a tax on cell phone use and make police officers into tax collectors.

“It’s basically a slap on the wrist,” he said.

Instead, Baldwin suggested creating an aggravated distracted driving charge, in which drivers who caused wrecks while using cell phones would receive a harsh penalty like 10 days in jail or a $1,000 fine. Under his suggestion, drivers who used cell phones without causing a crash wouldn’t be fined because they did no harm.

“When the word gets around, people get serious about mending their ways,” Baldwin said.

Councilor Chuck Wilkins said a law already exists against careless driving, and a violation carries a hefty fine and increase in insurance costs. However, he said, the proposed ordinance gives police the option of issuing a citation with a lesser penalty as a warning.

Councilor Lonnie Clayton said the ordinance is a way to keep accidents from happening.

“I treat the police department like preventative maintenance,” he said.

In other business, governing body members:

  • Approved the final reading of a 7.8 percent increase in water and wastewater rates, effective July 1.
  • Approved the final reading of an increased corrections fees paid by people convicted in municipal court. The fee is going from $25 to $30 to cover a $3-per-day rise in charges to house inmates at Sandoval County Detention Center.
  • Authorized the police department to apply for a grant that would pay three-quarters of the salaries of two school resource officers for three years. The city would pay the remaining quarter for three years and all of the salaries for a fourth year.
  • On split votes, made changes in the way special committees could be formed.
  • Appointed Robert A. Tyler and Sal Tortorici to the Planning and Zoning Board.
  • Added a councilor comment period after the public forum, but didn’t use it.
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