BOISE – There was one issue on which Idaho lawmakers from both parties were united before this year’s legislative session started: Making Idaho the 24th state to ban texting while driving.
Yet, nothing passed – despite long hearings with impassioned testimony in favor of the move from everyone from teenage drivers to prosecutors to insurance lobbyists. It’s a lesson in legislative dysfunction and politics.
Although both the Senate and House had voted overwhelmingly in favor of a ban, the bill died in the closing moments of this year’s legislative session on a procedural vote, amid a spat between the two houses.
“I would say that that’s not the best representation of a functional system,” said Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, who delivered to the Senate Transportation Committee petitions in favor of a ban with hundreds of signatures gathered by Post Falls sixth-graders.
Dave Carlson, lobbyist for AAA of Idaho, said surveys show widespread public support for texting bans. “It was clearly one of the hot topics that people expected to be acted on,” he said.
The stage seemed set for the bill to easily pass this year in Idaho. Neighboring Washington already has a $101 fine for texting while driving; Idaho lawmakers were clamoring to co-sponsor a ban before lawmakers convened.
The first bill introduced, SB 1352, was co-sponsored by both the House and Senate transportation chairs, and all the testimony at an hours-long committee hearing was in favor of the bill.
There was just one exception: Conservative activist Wayne Hoffman, who said he wasn’t testifying for or against the bill, told the Senate Transportation Committee that his nephew, a police officer in Maryland, which has such a ban, considered it a “stupid law” that was difficult to enforce because no one can tell if a driver is texting or just twiddling his thumbs.
Nevertheless, the bill cleared the committee unanimously with amendments adding an exemption for on-duty law enforcement, fire and emergency response vehicle drivers.
Sixth-graders at River City Middle School in Post Falls watched the hearing live on the Internet after researching the issue as part of a science and math competition. A five-member team of youngsters researched statistics on texting and driving, interviewed police officers and firefighters, visited City Hall and circulated petitions.
“I was actually hit by a texting driver,” said team member Sara Waddell, 12, who said a driver who was texting his girlfriend bumped into the side of her family’s van while she was riding with her mom in Coeur d’Alene a couple of years ago.
Said Kenzie Kimes, 12, “People aren’t going to stop unless it becomes a law.”
The bill passed the Senate 29-5 and headed to the House, where a public hearing in the transportation committee drew similar testimony. Only conservative activist Rod Beck testified against the bill, saying he thought it would be hard to enforce.
The House committee members, however, wanted a first violation to be an infraction with a $50 fine rather than a misdemeanor with a $300 fine as called for in the Senate bill, so they sent it back to the House amending order. There it languished for two weeks.
Then, Reps. Steve Kren, R-Nampa, and Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, proposed a new House version of the bill with only infraction penalties and with a narrower definition of the offense: Violations would be only for sending texts, not for receiving or reviewing them. That bill, HB 729, zoomed from a leadership committee to the full House in a matter of hours and passed 51-16.
It then went to the Senate, where transportation committee members said they liked their version better but proposed a compromise: In cases where there’s an accident causing injury or property damage, texting while driving would jump to a misdemeanor offense. The amended bill passed the Senate, 30-4, and headed back to the House.
By this time, it was the final night of the legislative session. After much debate, the House voted 37-31 in favor of the amendments. All that remained was to suspend rules to allow a final vote on the amended bill; otherwise, it’d take several days to come up for a vote, and lawmakers were about to adjourn for the year.
But Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, an opponent of the bill, objected to suspending rules, forcing a vote on that procedural move – at 37-31, it fell short of two-thirds. That killed the bill.
“We were absolutely devastated that a thing that was going to save lives actually died in the House,” said Emily Danforth, 13, a River City Middle School student who’s worked passionately on the issue. “We’re still working on it,” she said.
Teacher Ann Cunningham said the students “really put a lot of work into this. … It’s really hard to explain to 12- and 13-year-olds why this law would not be passed. … These kids text nonstop, and they know that you cannot look down and look up at the road at the same time.”
Carlson, of the AAA, said his group was happy with all the different versions of the bill and just wanted something passed. “I think the kids got it best,” he said.