BOISE — If a bill proposed by Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, becomes law, using hand-held mobile devices while driving would be prohibited across the entire state of Idaho.

The Senate Transportation Committee on Thursday voted unanimously to introduce Rice's bill, clearing the way for a full hearing.  

The bill would prohibit using a hand-held "mobile electronic device" while driving but doesn't ban hands-free calls or GPS use. The bill also prohibits wearing headphones or earphones while driving. 

"We've got a situation where if you drive down the road anywhere ... you will see people texting," Rice said. "They're more attentive to their phone than anything else going on around them — that's dangerous." 

A person found violating the law would receive a $50 infraction for the first offense, $100 for the second offense and $200 for any offense after that. Fines double if a person is found to have been using a hand-held device during the time of an accident, and driver's licenses can be suspended for up to 90 days if a person has three or more infractions within three years.

In 2012, Idaho banned texting and driving. The law however, didn't prohibit making telephone calls.

Rice's bill doesn't treat every situation the same — it includes several exceptions to mobile device use. For example, calling or texting for emergency purposes would be allowed if it meets the bill's criteria, which includes using the phone to call 911, law enforcement agencies and health care providers. The bill prohibits school bus drivers from using a mobile device while driving, except in the case of an emergency.

"We want bus drivers focused on the road," Rice said. "We want our kids safe on the school bus, we can't have wrecks because somebody is focused on their conversation rather than the kids."

The bill would not apply to law enforcement officers, firefighters or paramedics responding to "a public utility emergency."

There isn't a statewide statute preventing the use of mobile devices while driving, however several Idaho cities have already adopted their own policies, creating a patchwork in state traffic laws that "confuses the public," according to Rice.

A more uniform statute across the state would address the problem, Rice said.

Similar bills have been introduced before, but the definitions were "too loose and could be interpreted in different ways," according to Rice.

"That's what we're trying to do is make sure that we have tight definitions so that we really address it," Rice said. "We need the road to be a place for driving and paying attention to driving."

A bill opposite of Rice's proposal was introduced in the House earlier this session. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Chad Christensen, R-Ammon, would bar municipal governments from creating their own regulations, resolutions or ordinances that prohibit hand-held wireless devices.

"Unfortunately sometimes people say that any regulation destroys their liberty, their freedom — that's really not the case," Rice said. "Freedom can't exist with no rules."

Distracted driving isn't only a problem in Idaho. Data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that in 2016, 3,450 people were killed by distracted driving, which could include anything from eating to texting or talking on the phone. 

The American Automobile Association reports that cellphone use while driving is common. A AAA 2017 Traffic Safety Culture Index showed that over a one-month period, 60.5 percent of drivers had talked on a hands-free cellphone, while 49.1 percent talked on a hand-held cellphone.

Savannah Cardon is the Caldwell reporter for the Idaho Press. Follow her on Twitter, @savannahlcardon, or reach her at 208-465-8172.

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