At present, a driver talking on a handheld phone while going down Highway 91 would be on the wrong side of the law while passing through Idaho Falls and Pocatello (and, soon perhaps, Blackfoot as well), but on the right side of the law elsewhere. Phone your mom while driving in Butte County, no problem. Cross into Blaine County, and you’ve broken the law.
The legal patchwork that has developed across the state should be resolved by a state law banning driving while talking on the phone. A driver shouldn’t have to research the laws of every municipality they pass through in order to stay in compliance with the law.
This was precisely the justification for passing the so-called “Constitutional Carry” law which allowed the unlicensed concealed carry of firearms within city limits, as was already legal outside city limits. If the uniformity argument is valid in that case, it’s valid in this one as well.
The Legislature has shown no commitment to preserving local control in regulations of this kind. In recent years, it has blocked cities from raising local minimum wages or banning plastic shopping bags. Don’t cry overreach now, especially in an area where the state has obvious, longstanding authority.
The lack of a statewide ban on using cellphones while driving means that calls are generally legal in areas where distracted driving carries the greatest consequences: on freeways and highways where high speeds mean any accident is much more likely to result in serious injury or death.
Is banning talking on a cellphone held in the hand a perfect solution? Not by a long shot. Many studies of driving behavior, as well as cognitive science research relying on brain scans, indicate that using a hands-free device while driving isn’t any better than talking on a phone held in the hand.
But it’s very hard to imagine how a ban on all cellphone use in cars could be effectively enforced. How is a cop supposed to tell the difference between someone talking on a hands-free device and someone singing along to the radio?
Unfortunately, the evidence that banning calling while driving is effective in reducing the number of distracted driving accidents is mixed at best.
The most effective laws, studies suggest, are those that are frequently enforced. Driver behavior is likely to be changed more by the likelihood of getting a ticket than by the size of the resulting fine.
So lawmakers should pass rules that allow police to pull a driver over for talking on a cellphone, rather than making it an additional infraction that can be tacked on only if police catch a driver violating some other rule of the road.
Hopefully, the Legislature will take up this issue in January to at least give drivers statewide a simple, uniform set of rules to follow.