WAILUKU - Drivers in Maui County can soon expect to put down their cell phones before turning on the ignition.
The Maui County Council unanimously passed a bill Friday on second and final reading that would make it illegal to use a cell phone and other mobile electronic devices while driving.
The only exception is for people who use a cell phone connected to a hands-free instrument, such as a Bluetooth, according to the bill sponsored by Council Members Joe Pontanilla and Mike Molina.
Mayor Charmaine Tavares intends to sign the bill into law, said Maui County spokeswoman Mahina Martin.
Once the bill is signed by Tavares, Maui County would become the last county in Hawaii to have such a ban. But it wasn't done without controversy.
Distracted driving contributes to 3,000 fatal auto accidents nationally each year, said Council Member Wayne Nishiki, who pushed for months for the bill to become law as soon as possible.
"This law is going to save lives," said Nishiki, whose words were met with approving nods from several of his colleagues. "There's no excuse for using a cell phone while driving."
If you must make or take a call, just pull over, he said.
Taxi, truck and other commercial drivers wanted an exemption, which they didn't get Friday after months of lobbying council members. They have testified that they can't afford the added expense of outfitting drivers with Bluetooth-style devices in these difficult economic times and complained that the earpieces are a pain to wear all day.
However, the new ordinance would allow drivers with commercial licenses and operators of registered fleet vehicles to use two-way radios while on the job.
Teenagers and other first-time drivers, or anyone who holds an instructional permit, cannot use cell phones or other mobile electronic devices, even with headsets or ear pieces.
First offenders face a traffic citation with a fine of up to $100. Those with subsequent offenses could be fined $250 and more.
An amendment unsuccessfully proposed by Council Member Jo Anne Johnson would have allowed the continued use of cell phones in all marked commercial and government vehicles.
Johnson later voted for the bill "with very serious reservations." Council Member Gladys Baisa also voted yes, but she said she was worried about the impact on businesses already running on paper-thin margins.
"This is something the majority of the community wants," Pontanilla said.
The measure also had the support of the county Department of the Prosecuting Attorney and the Maui Police Department's Traffic Division.
"Business is very fragile at this time, and I don't want to be the one to hurt them," Baisa said. "But I really want a cell phone ban bill. We've got to do something."
Council Members Bill Medeiros and Mike Victorino were absent and excused from Friday's meeting.
In other action, council members unanimously passed on second and final reading a ban on aerial advertising, or those message banners that are pulled behind airplanes.
The council also sent back to the Committee of the Whole a bill that would put a 10-year extension of the affordable housing fund before voters in November. Some council members said they still want to tweak it a bit to make sure that working and middle class families can benefit from the program.
Since its inception several years ago, nearly all the affordable housing projects built have been for people with low to very low income, as determined by federal income eligibility charts, as well as for the disabled.
Molina and several other council members want to use the fund, which receives 2 percent of the county real property tax revenues, also to target middle income as well as new "gap" groups, such as firefighters, teachers and construction and hotel industry workers.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.