Pocatello City Council members said during a Thursday morning study session they’re supportive of a proposed ordinance making it illegal to drive in city limits while using a handheld mobile electronic device, such as a cellphone.
Council members voted to place the draft ordinance, which was modeled after a rule Idaho Falls recently approved, on the agenda for their first regular meeting in December.
City Attorney Jared Johnson also will draft a separate resolution to be considered during the December meeting specifying the amount of the fine for the offense. Johnson explained approving the fine as a resolution will allow the city to make future adjustments without undergoing the more rigorous process of amending an ordinance.
The offense would be considered “primary,” meaning officers would have the discretion to stop people they observe violating the policy, and wouldn’t have to rely on some other infraction to initiate a stop. But it will not be classified as a “moving violation,” so infractions wouldn’t lead to points on an offender’s driving record.
The first three citations within two years would be infractions, while the fourth offense would result in a misdemeanor.
“My guess would be police would rather write a ticket for this than for an accident,” said Councilman Roger Bray.
The ordinance would be temporary and sets a period of three years before the city would re-evaluate it.
Exceptions would be made for hands-free devices, emergency calls, emergency responders and GPS navigation, though addresses would have to be entered before the start of the drive.
The state already has a law making it illegal to send a text message while driving.
Councilman Jim Johnston advised the city to post the ordinance on signs by its border entries to alert drivers from other communities. He also advised working with Bannock County and Chubbuck leaders to pass similar ordinances.
“I would be really interested in soliciting support from Chubbuck and Bannock County so we’re not an island unto ourselves,” Johnston said.
City Councilwoman Heidi Adamson suggested an $80 fine for driving while operating a mobile device. The City Council put off proposing a fine amount after Councilman Rick Cheatum argued $80 might be too steep. Johnson said he’ll research fines in other cities with similar ordinances, such as Idaho Falls, before the December meeting.
The City Council had considered adding a sixth-month grace period after the ordinance is published to “educate” the public before issuing citations, but ultimately decided it would be best to leave enforcement to the police department’s discretion.
“We will discuss that as a staff,” said Maj. Roger Schei, who presented the department’s perspective on the issue to the City Council. “We’re going to be heavy on the education in the schools and with the public.”
Schei believes the ordinance will lead to safer streets in Pocatello. He presented statistics showing officers noted cellphones were a factor in roughly a third of the 213 citations the city has issued for inattentive driving since 2015.
He said the ordinance also applies to tablets, computers, other communication devices and anything that would distract a driver.
“It’s all about public safety,” Schei said.
Schei advises Pocatello residents to be patient while driving, reminding them “your Facebook message or text message will still be there when you park your car.”