BOISE — A bill to ban using a handheld cellphone while driving statewide is heading to the full Senate.
The Senate Transportation Committee voted 6-2 on Tuesday to advance the bill. It would set the fines for a violation at $50 for a first offense, $100 for a second and $200 for a third and subsequent offense, plus possible license suspension of up to 90 days for three or more offenses within three years. It makes handheld cellphone use a primary violation, which means police can stop drivers just for that. It also would override the handful of existing local bans, including in Idaho Falls and Pocatello.
Idaho banned texting while driving in 2012, but that ban only covers texting specifically and is little enforced. A bill to ban talking on a handheld phone while driving passed the same committee in 2018 but died on a 22-13 vote in the full Senate.
The bill, which is being sponsored by Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, would let people use a hands-free device and would allow for use of headphones as long as the earpiece is only in one ear. It also contains a few exceptions, such as in emergencies and for first responders carrying out their duties. Rice cast the measure as protecting people’s right to travel.
“When we have chaos on the roads or unsafe conditions, that actually interferes with the right our citizens are actively exercising on the roads,” he said.
Some critics of banning cellphone use while driving have said the state’s inattentive driving law should cover it. Rice said the inattentive driving law is secondary enforcement and is a misdemeanor, bringing harsher penalties than his bill, which make using a cellphone while driving an infraction. Also, Rice said most inattentive driving citations are written after someone has gotten into an accident.
“It’s after we’ve already created the worst result,” he said.
Several people testified in favor of the bill, including lobbyists for insurance companies, AAA Idaho and the Idaho Sheriffs Association.
“The one thing about freedom that I’ve always believed is the freedom to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose,” said Michael Kane, who was speaking for the sheriffs’ association and several insurance companies.
Idaho Freedom Foundation Vice President Fred Birnbaum was the only person to testify against it. He worried how it would affect Uber and Lyft drivers who need to use their phones while working, and he objected to exempting first responders.
“I think we can fix the inattentive driving law so we don’t have this blanket problem,” Birnbaum said.
Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, told Birnbaum about a friend of hers who was killed in a crash a year ago with a driver talking on a cellphone. She challenged Birnbaum to rewrite the distracted driving law, and said she and her colleagues were trying to save lives.
“I would like you to fix it so it’s safe, so that more kids won’t be killed so that you wouldn’t be standing here always … criticizing a bill and then putting negative points when senators vote or House members vote,” Lodge said.
Lodge was referring to the foundation’s Freedom Index, where the group scores bills and then ranks lawmakers based on their votes. The Freedom Foundation has scored the cellphone bill negatively, meaning lawmakers who vote for it will lose points on their Freedom Index score.
Birnbaum said he would be willing to work on the inattentive driving statute. He also said people “misunderstand my intent and role” at the Freedom Foundation.
“I do think the balance of public policy is to achieve the right outcomes while not overly infringing on people’s liberties,” Birnbaum said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, who opposed last year’s bill, said Rice’s was an improvement. Balancing freedom and safety, he said, is one of the challenges of governing.
“I think there’s a responsibility we all have when we share a common thoroughfare in life,” he said. “And sometimes, that means giving up some of our freedoms for the safety of others.”