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Ban on use of electronic devices while driving nabs 600 drivers

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Nearly 600 drivers have been cited under a 10-month-old Rio Rancho ordinance that prohibits the use of electronic devices like cellphones while driving, and some drivers said they already notice a difference in their fellow drivers’ behavior.

The number of vehicle crashes has decreased within city limits during the first four months of this year, though police officials said there’s no way of knowing whether enforcing the ban has had an impact on crashes. The number of crashes each month stayed around the same between July 2014, when the ordinance went into effect, and the end of 2014, according to data provided by the Rio Rancho Police Department.

Municipal court records show that Rio Rancho police officers had issued 579 citations as of May 12 under the “prohibited use of electronic device while driving” ordinance since it was implemented. About 70 percent of those were issued in 2014, the records show, and only a handful of drivers were cited more than once. That number doesn’t include drivers who got away with only warnings, however.

The traffic unit has seen a noticeable decrease in collisions, both with and without injuries, in the first quarter of this year, Rio Rancho Police Capt. Paul Rogers said in an interview earlier this month. Rogers said the number of overall crashes this year has fallen steadily each month from 145 in January to 107 in April, but it’s difficult for traffic unit officers and department officials to say what’s behind the decrease.

“There is a decrease in traffic crashes. What they attribute it to? I have no idea,” Rogers said. “There could be any number of reasons why.”

More cautious

Some Rio Rancho drivers said they have noticed a reduction in the number of drivers they see talking on cellphones and several said the contrast is clear between Rio Rancho and Albuquerque.

“I think people in Rio Rancho are a little more cautious now than they are in Albuquerque, even though they have a ban (on driving while on the phone) there, too,” said driver Rosemary Wickard, a 20-year Rio Rancho resident.

The “prohibited use of electronic device while driving” citation carries a $50 fine. Of the 579 citations, 326 ended in drivers being found guilty and 22 were dismissed in court, according to the records.

Before the ordinance went into effect, Rogers said officers typically cited drivers who were distracted by electronic devices under the city’s careless driving or “prohibited activities while driving” ordinances. The new ordinance regarding electronic devices is more specific and allows the city to keep the citation fees, which would have gone to the state under its own such ordinance that legislators passed into law in the 2014 session, Rogers and city elected officials have said. The number of citations under the “prohibited activities” ordinance does not appear to have decreased after the implementation of the electronic device ordinance, according to court records, as just 141 citations have been issued for “prohibited activities” since 2005. Twenty citations were issued under the ordinance in 2014 and nine have been issued so far in 2015, according to the records.

The “prohibited activities” ordinance is also facing a federal legal challenge after an attorney sued the city saying the ordinance has been enforced in a way that limits free speech. The lawsuit is pending.

Rogers said the “prohibited activities” ordinance is still necessary to cite drivers who are driving unsafely but whose behavior doesn’t fall under various other driving laws. For example, he said, he once cited a driver who was reading a newspaper while driving on Interstate 25 and other Rio Rancho officers have pulled over drivers who were applying makeup behind the wheel.