March 2, 2011 in Opinion

Editorial: Texting bill misses root of problem: cell phones

 

Last year, the Idaho Legislature was on the verge of passing a broadly supported bill that would ban texting while driving, but infighting and parliamentary maneuvering distracted them from reaching the finish line. Because the House and Senate easily passed bills last year after lengthy, detailed hearings, one would think that adopting such a measure this year would be a breeze. Instead, the House is considering a watered-down version.

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, is sponsoring House Bill 141, which contains this passage: “No person operating a motor vehicle shall use a hand-held electronic device that causes such person to be distracted or otherwise fail to exercise due care, as that term is provided for in section 49-615, Idaho Code.”

It’s the “due care” part that removes virtually all of the teeth from this proposed law. When House Transportation Committee members questioned him about that term, Hagedorn acknowledged that it wouldn’t automatically be illegal for drivers to tap out text messages while driving. It would be up to law enforcement officers to decide whether this act was causing a dangerous distraction.

R U kidding?

This loophole flies in the face of research on driving while using a cell phone. All distracted driving is potentially hazardous, but communicating via cell phone – whether talking or texting – is an especially intense activity that occupies the mind as much as the hands. Some studies show that it slows reaction times as much or more than driving while drunk. Plus, the extended time of the distraction makes it more dangerous.

Restrictions ought to reflect that reality.

Most states, including Idaho, do not allow open containers of alcohol in the passenger portion of vehicles. Neither drivers nor passengers can legally sip an alcoholic beverage, regardless of how smoothly the vehicle is being operated. Officers need not wait for drivers to swerve or otherwise lose control of the car. It’s the same with speed limits. Drivers cannot legally speed even if they are demonstrating “due care.”

Some lawmakers would appear to be distracted by the distraction argument. Hagedorn’s bill goes out of its way to avoid mentioning cell phones. He notes that an electric toothbrush could also be a distraction. Well, yeah. And an old-school toothbrush and floss could be, too, but this misses the point.

The distraction of cell phones has become the focus of legislation across the nation because their widespread use by drivers has become a very real problem. The nature of the distraction is also different, as research has shown. It isn’t the same as popping in a CD. Ideally, Idaho would also ban talking on handheld phones, but that wouldn’t appear to be a political reality this year.

The House Transportation Committee has decided to work on amendments to HB 141, but lawmakers need not reinvent the wheel. They all but passed a sensible bill last year that would ban texting while driving.

This is an easy call.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.


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