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City bans cell talk, texts while driving

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Drivers beware: Talking on a cell phone or texting while driving in Rio Rancho can now mean a $50 fine.

Rio Rancho city councilors have unanimously approved a ban on texting and talking on cell phones behind the wheel, except in emergencies or while using a hands-free mode. The vote came at the governing body meeting Wednesday at City Hall.

Councilor Lonnie Clayton was absent Wednesday, but supported the ordinance during its first reading last month.

In the past, Rio Rancho Police could cite drivers using cell phones for careless driving, which carries a $100 fine.

Councilor Chuck Wilkins said creating a specific ban on texting and talking would allow officers the option of issuing the smaller $50 fine if they believed it was more appropriate.

The state banned texting and driving during this year’s legislative session. The new ordinance allows officers to cite violators into municipal court, so the city receives the fine money, instead of magistrate court, where the money would go to the state.

Motorists are allowed to use cell phones if they’re communicating with emergency responders or medical providers in an emergency.

Rio Rancho resident Kerry Adams said the ordinance would be ineffective and drivers would cause more problems by trying to hide their texting.

“To put it simply, the state Legislature is stupid for thinking this will work,” she said.

Adams said the law was about creating revenue, but government budgets should depend on economic progress, not bad behavior. Wilkins later said the ordinance wasn’t about revenue but giving police options.

Corrales resident and amateur radio operator Ron Reder said he was concerned the ordinance would prohibit the use of ham radios in vehicles, even if they required no driver interaction or the operator didn’t have to dial. Hams sometimes provide backup emergency communications or help with search-and-rescue operations.

Reder suggested adding a blanket exception for federally licensed ham operators. He said they should be trusted to use their equipment while driving just as police and fire personnel are trusted to use computer-aided dispatch equipment behind the wheel.

City Attorney Jennifer Vega-Brown said emergency response and devices attached to a vehicle electronically or by a cord are already excluded from the ban.

Wilkins asked if hams would be able to have personal, non-emergency conversations on their car radios under the ordinance. Vega-Brown said they wouldn’t.

Councilor Shelby Smith moved an amendment specifying hams are exempt from the ban when handling emergencies. Reder said he was concerned the move might not help, because hams aren’t first-responders. Wilkins said the ordinance didn’t specify exceptions were only for first-responders.

The amendment passed unanimously.

The governing body also:

  • Awarded a $1.75 million contract to New Concepts Inc. to replace 900 leaky plastic water service lines with copper pipes.
  • Changed rules of procedure to allow another councilor comment section at the end of the public forum.
  • Postponed a decision on a zone change on a third of an acre of land between Camelot and Excalibur streets to get more legal information.
  • Rezoned land at Veranda Road and Southern Boulevard to allow a U-Haul truck rental lot and storage facility.
  • Approved a site plan for a 7-Eleven gas station at Unser Boulevard and Wellspring Avenue.
  • Postponed a vote on the first reading of a proposed outdoor lighting ordinance until Aug. 27.
  • Created a special committee to consider how to reach the public through social and other media.
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