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Heidi Shaffer, Published August 31 2010

Fargo to ban texting for police employees

The Fargo Police Department is banning texting while driving for all employees.

A policy change expected in the next 30 days will prohibit all Fargo police employees from texting while driving department vehicles and will limit cell phone use to “necessary and reasonable” calls, Chief Keith Ternes said.

“There are clearly some circumstances when a police officer may need to be engaged in a phone call while driving,” Ternes said, so he doesn’t favor prohibiting cell phone use entirely.

But the issue isn’t limited to the Police Department.

Ternes will be watching what the Grand Forks City Council does with its proposed citywide texting ban to see whether Fargo should consider a similar ordinance.

Grand Forks officials have debated the ordinance for the past few months and will likely take up the issue again next week.

What they decide would likely influence whether Fargo leaders would consider a similar ban.

Commissioner Brad Wimmer said a texting ban is “without a doubt” something Fargo should look into.

“I applaud Grand Forks for moving forward on it,” he said.

Commissioners and constituents have talked casually about a ban, but no one has come forward with any official proposals, Wimmer said.

“Theirs (Grand Forks’) is a work in progress,” Commissioner Mike Williams said. “It’s on the radar, but not on the front burner.”

Mayor Dennis Walaker said he thinks a ban in Fargo may be premature, but the city will monitor what Grand Forks decides.

Commissioner Dave Piepkorn said he would support looking at curbing distracted driving, but the Fargo commission is dealing with several other big issues that take priority.

“We’ve got one thing that we have to focus on and that’s our flood protection,” he said.

Commissioner Tim Mahoney said the commission would take the lead from Ternes on whether a texting ban is needed in Fargo, but he wants to be sure it’s something that is needed and enforceable.

Texting while driving has “undoubtedly contributed” to traffic accidents in Fargo, Ternes said.

“It clearly is taking people’s attention away from their driving,” he said.

Enforcing the ordinance is one obstacle Grand Forks may face in finding the right proposal, and the ban also opens debate over what other activities can distract drivers, Ternes said.

Currently, officers could apply state statutes for careless or reckless driving when issuing citations for texting while driving.

An officer simply seeing a driver texting probably wouldn’t be enough for one of those citations to be successfully prosecuted, Ternes said. If the citation was the result of an accident or near accident, the chances of success in court might be better, he said.

The issue is a broad one that may garner examination on a state or even federal level, Ternes said, but he commends Grand Forks for leading the way.

“I give them all of the credit in the world for trying to introduce this into their community,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heidi Shaffer at (701) 241-5511