The statewide texting-while-driving ban passed by our Legislature this year is inspiring Mitchell to repeal its local ordinance on electronically distracted driving. The new state law makes texting while driving a secondary offense, meaning troopers can't pull you over for thumb-screen absorption, but they can enhance your ticket if they stop you for something else and you don't hide your iPhone before they come to your window. Mitchell currently makes texting while driving a primary offense, meaning that's the only reason city cops need to stop you and take your contribution to city government.
Councilman Phil Carlson voted with the council majority last Monday in favor of first reading of the repeal. Carlson prefers uniformity in traffic laws. He also thinks repealing the local ban will save the city some legal bills:
Carlson says that Mitchell should repeal its ban because drivers could fight their tickets in court, which could cost the city money.
"There could potentially be some legal issues with it. For instance, somebody gets ticketed under our ban instead of the state ban, there could be a legal fight over that that could go potentially all the way to the South Dakota Supreme Court," Carlson said [Leland Steva, "Mitchell City Council Takes First Step in Repealing City's Texting Ban," KELO-TV, 2014.04.12].
Drivers can fight lots of tickets in court. There is debate on whether they would win the argument that the state's texting-while-driving ban supersedes any local ban. But how many drivers will litigate? The Mitchell fine is $120. Even the boldest pro se defendant will burn up that much money just in time off from work to go to court well before getting to the complicated and costly state Supreme Court stage.
I'm not saying people should not litigate when they have genuine grievances against improper laws and official actions (or inactions). I'm saying the cost of accessing our justice system, even to get a simple answer about whether state law supersedes local law, is so high that the test case Carlson fears won't materialize from most rational drivers.
Carlson also fails to include in his cost-benefit calculations the public-safety benefits Mitchell gets by more strictly encouraging drivers to keep their eyes on the road. If the tougher local ordinance makes a thousand Mitchellians decide not to pick up the phone and text while crossing town to Cabela's, and if just one of them manages not to crumple someone else's car or run over a pedestrian, the city comes out ahead, even if someday the lawyer Mitchell PD pulls over sues his way out of his $120 ticket.