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Tougher hands-free driving ordinance for Huntsville gets green light

HUNTSVILLE – After false starts and delays that pushed forward an agenda item proposed by District 2 Huntsville City Councilman David Little, the body finally took a vote on a hands-free driving ordinance regarding wireless devices.

At the council’s regular meeting Thursday night, the members voted to pass an amendment to an amended ordinance that restricts the use of wireless communication devices while driving.

The measure upgrades the city’s existing no-text ordinance from a secondary to a primary offense, allowing officers to stop a driver when they see a violation and issue a citation. In a secondary offense, which defines a law that covers the state, police officers can only issue a citation if there is another reason to stop the driver.

The new ordinance takes effect Jan. 1. The law will also prohibit drivers from doing any of the following while operating a vehicle:

  • Using a wireless telecommunications device to write, send, read or otherwise engage in any text-based communication
  • Watching, recording or capturing a photo or video
  • Engaging in voice-based communication while holding a wireless telecommunications device
  • Physically holding or otherwise supporting a wireless telecommunications device with any part of their body.

The council agreed to adjust penalties for convictions within a 24-month period as follows, removing any jail time for these offenses:

  • $50 for a first conviction;
  • $100 for a second conviction; and
  • $150 and/or community service for a third conviction.

The original ordinance called for possible imprisonment for convictions.

Huntsville Police Chief Kirk Giles told the council that officers support the ordinance and his department will use the first six months of the year to educate police and the community on the change without issuing citations.

Little told 256 Today he had no issues with the latest amendment of the ordinance that removed possible jail terms for a third offense. He also deemed the existing city and state laws “terribly weak.”

“We postponed this a few times and it allowed us to make some changes and we did,” he said.

Huntsville’s new ordinance will make violations a primary offense instead of a secondary offense.

District 1 City Councilman Devyn Keith asked that jail time be taken out of the ordinance’s penalties in lieu of a fine and/or community service as ordered by a judge. Keith and District 5 City Councilman John Meredith said their north Huntsville constituents expressed to them they feared racial profiling could play a part in police stops because of the law, but Keith voted for the amended ordinance which passed 4-1.

Meredith, who wanted the law to be a secondary offense, voted nay.

“Our existing ordinance is very hard to enforce, so I’m thankful to my colleagues with the City Council for voting to strengthen this law,” said Little, who at the end of Thursday’s meeting was voted in to replace Meredith as council president. “Nearly 15 years since I was seriously hurt in a crash caused by a distracted driver, I’m grateful to be here today and will continue to be an advocate for safer roads.”

 

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