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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho Senate panel advances measure to ban hand-held cell phones while driving

The Idaho Senate Transportation Committee debates legislation on cell phone use while driving, on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018 at the Idaho Capitol. (Betsy Z. Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE - Idaho lawmakers eager to curb rising numbers of fatal and serious injury car accidents are pursuing a ban on driving while talking on hand-held cell phones.

A state Senate panel, on an 8-1 vote, passed the ban. However the measure would repeal the state’s 2011 law that banned texting while driving.

Ticketing drivers for texting is proving too hard to enforce, said Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, who said he’s heard that again and again from law enforcement.

“There’s no way they can enforce texting while driving – it’s just impossible,” he said.

But noting that Idaho’s injury and fatality rate is soaring – with distracted driving a likely cause – he said: “We’ve got to do better … I think this is a good compromise to get us a little closer to where we can be safer drivers.”

Driving deaths on Idaho roads had been dropping for years, but they started rising again, sharply, just in the past few years. Backers of the bill said the Idaho Transportation Department reports that 65 Idahoans died in crashes involving the use of electronic devices in 2016, up from 51 in 2015.

Sen. Mark Harris, R-Soda Springs, said he regularly drives many hours between Boise and his eastern Idaho home, and, “When I’m on a lonely stretch of road and I’m sleepy and there’s no place to pull over, I like to call my wife. It wakes me up. Five minutes, I’m good to go.”

Supporters of the bill told Harris he could still call his wife – he’d just have to use his speakerphone, Bluetooth, or plug in a single earbud – the bill forbids using two earbuds, so drivers can hear approaching emergency vehicles or other vehicles’ horns.

But Harris remained unconvinced, and cast the only vote against the bill.

“I get the safety thing, OK? I do,” he said.

But he recounted how just this past Sunday, he met some people in downtown Boise who’d arrived from California “and they’d had it with regulation, they’d had it with laws, they’d had it with rules. And they were up here looking for a house because Idaho doesn’t have laws, rules and regulations like California does. And that’s where I see this bill headed is more law, rules and regulation. I can’t support it.”

All other senators on the panel – including North Idaho Sens. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene – voted in favor of sending the bill to the full Senate for amendments. There, the bill’s sponsors want to make a correction, to make it fully clear that it wouldn’t ban the use of a cell phone while stopped at a red light or stop sign.

Mike Kane, Idaho lobbyist for the Property Casualty Insurers Association, said the bill followed a model bill that other states have used, with the exception of the red light/stop sign language.

The bill also would ban people younger than 21 or those driving with a learner’s permit from using cell phones while driving at all, even hands-free.

Multiple insurance companies, along with AAA of Idaho and Verizon, support the Idaho bill.

After Harris wondered aloud about how distracted a driver is while eating a hamburger, Woody Richards, lobbyist for Farm Bureau Insurance, Allstate Insurance and American Family Insurance, said the legislation may not get at all causes of distracted driving, but said, “There’s no question that electronic devices are highly distracting to drivers.”

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said her commute to Boise on Tuesday morning took an hour and a half, with much of it on congested freeways where she frequently encounters distracted and aggressive drivers. “I think we owe it to our young people, especially, that they have to take driving as a very serious endeavor,” she said. “It isn’t something that you just get in a car and take off. You’ve got to be really responsible.”

To become law, the bill must survive the amending process in the Senate, pass the Senate, clear a House committee and the full House, and receive the governor’s signature.