Subscribe to the Journal, call 505-823-4400

          Front Page

Phone Use In Itself Won't Be Big Issue

By T.J. Wilham
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    If you can talk on a cell phone and drive between the lines, chances are you won't be pulled over for violating Albuquerque's new cell phone law.
    If you're not a good multitasker, however, and your driving is so poor that you grab the attention of a police officer, chances are you will be cited.
    The City Council earlier this week passed a law against the use of cell phones by drivers unless they have a hands-free device or are involved in an emergency. The new law is expected to go into effect by the end of next week.
    On Thursday, Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz said he doubts the cell phone law will be used often as the primary reason a motorist is pulled over.
    Officers are more likely to add a cell phone citation when writing up someone for reckless driving or when investigating a crash, he said.
    "It is usually other driving behaviors that attract the officers' attention to a vehicle," Schultz said. "The clear majority of the time people will get cited for this will be because of other driving behavior.
    "Unless we see a specific problem, I don't expect the law to be used as the primary reason to pull people over. Hopefully, the community will conform to the law and we won't have to do that."
    Over the last four years, police in Santa Fe have learned how difficult it is to enforce such a law.
    Santa Fe's cell phone law was enacted in 2002. Last year, the city issued about 2,000 citations to people who broke it.
    "It is one of the tougher ordinances to enforce," said Santa Fe Police Chief Eric Johnson.
    "You see so many of them, it gets frustrating because you can pull over one person and while you've got them stopped, 10 more will pass you using their cell phones. You can't pull over everybody."
    Johnson said so many people are talking on their cell phones while driving that an officer could spend an entire shift pulling them over.
    That's one reason Schultz said he doesn't expect officers to use the new law as the main reason for a traffic stop.
    Both chiefs agreed the best way to enforce the law is through public education and special traffic operations, similar to seat belt enforcement.
    In Santa Fe, signs at the city limits alert people to the cell phone law. At times, officers have conducted special traffic operations, including seat belt checkpoints, in which they look for violations of any traffic law.
    Schultz said he doesn't plan to have cell phone checkpoints. However, like Santa Fe, the law will be used as a primary reason to stop someone when the department is conducting special traffic operations. Those are conducted in selected areas based on complaints and collisions.
    Regardless, it will be two months before anyone in Albuquerque will get an actual citation. Once the law goes into effect, police will issue warnings for only 60 days.
    The new law exempts public safety officers who are performing their duties, but Schultz said he already requires his officers to use hands-free devices. The Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office does as well.
    "The majority of the time, this is going to be a violation that a motorist talks himself into getting," Schultz said. "If an officer stops someone for this, more than likely they will get a warning unless" they talk back to the officer.
    A law restricting cell phone use while driving could take effect by the end of next week.
    The City Clerk's Office said Thursday the law will be officially published Sunday. It goes into effect five days after publication, which means it could be in place Feb. 16.
    Mayor Martin Chávez has said police will issue warnings only for the first 60 days. Citations will carry a fine of $100 for a first offense and $200 for subsequent offenses.