Idaho debates bill to allow texting if driver not distracted

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, pitches his texting-while-driving bill, HB 141, to the House Transportation Committee on Monday afternoon. The bill would still permit texting while driving if the driver exercises
Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, pitches his texting-while-driving bill, HB 141, to the House Transportation Committee on Monday afternoon. The bill would still permit texting while driving if the driver exercises "due care." Hagedorn said the toned-down bill was negotiated with groups ranging from sheriffs to insurance companies. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - How about a texting-while-driving bill that says it’s OK to text if you’re careful, but not if you’re not? That’s what an Idaho lawmaker has proposed as a compromise, after a texting ban was killed on the last night of last year’s legislative session.

Insurance companies and the Idaho Sheriffs Association have endorsed the new bill, HB 141, but the AAA of Idaho opposed it Monday, and a House committee decided to wait a week and look at ways to amend it.

“Is this all we can do?” asked Dave Carlson, lobbyist for AAA of Idaho. He noted that 30 states have banned texting while driving, which Carlson said “is on its way to becoming the new drunk driving.” Distracted driving now is responsible for a quarter of traffic fatalities nationwide, the AAA said.

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said he’s been working since last year to try to come up with a bill that everyone can support. “This truly is a piece of sausage,” he told the House Transportation Committee. “I can tell you that AAA is not completely happy, the insurance companies are not completely happy, the sheriffs are not completely happy, I am not completely happy, nor are the local law enforcement folks.” But, he said, “This is what we came up with.”

Last year, a texting-while-driving ban was killed on the final night of Idaho’s legislative session, despite having won majority support in both houses, when then-Rep. Raul Labrador, now a congressman, used a parliamentary maneuver to require a two-thirds vote in the House. The bill got a 37-30 majority - not two-thirds.

Hagedorn’s bill creates a new infraction of distracted driving, with a $75 fine for violations, that occurs whenever a driver “shall use a hand held electronic device that causes such person to be distracted or otherwise fail to exercise due care.”

The bill never mentions texting, and Hagedorn acknowledged, under questioning from committee members, that it would give drivers who can text without getting distracted a free pass.

“If you’re driving down the road and you’re using an electronic device and you are using due care … then there would be no reason for an officer to pull you over,” Hagedorn said.

Mike Kane, lobbyist for both the Property and Casualty Insurance Association of America and the Idaho Sheriffs Association, said the idea of limiting the bill to texting raised concerns about other types of distractions, and that some thought a misdemeanor penalty for texting was “heavy-handed.” “Rep. Hagedorn … has been steadfast in trying to find another way,” Kane said. “It will give a new tool in the shed to law enforcement.”

But lawmakers on the committee raised concerns. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said the measure appears to send a message to young drivers “that if you can drive and text and manage to stay on the same side of the road … that that’s OK. I don’t like the message,” she said.

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “I think it’s worse than watching sausage made - I think it’s like watching it and then having to eat it.”

Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, suggested adding a line to the bill to say that texting while driving would automatically be a violation, and defining texting as “the manual entry of data into such handheld device.”

Hagedorn said it’s too hard to define texting, and there would always be something not covered.

The committee voted 8-7 to hold the bill for a week and work on amendments.

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