After several tries and frustrating setbacks, Idaho is set to join the majority of states that have toughened laws against sending text messages while driving.
House lawmakers voted 53-17 Tuesday to bar motorists from using smartphones and other hand-held devices to review, prepare or send written communications. Rep. Julie Ellsworth, R-Boise, pushed the plan, saying a strong message from state leaders is needed to curb the deadly and growing habit.
“There is just something cultural now with this texting thing,” Ellsworth said. “We need to send a message as lawmakers and leaders of this state that we’re not going to do it while driving.”
At least 35 states and Washington, D.C., ban text messaging by drivers, but efforts to toughen the law in Idaho has struggled to gain traction in recent years.
This session seemed different as lawmakers have acknowledged feeling more pressure to act in the wake of recent traffic deaths linked to smartphone use. An 18-year-old Caldwell woman died in January after smashing into a slow-moving tanker truck on the highway. Taylor Sauer had been using her phone to look at a social networking website before the crash, authorities said.
Her family has testified in favor of the texting ban.
Distracted driving contributed to 192 traffic deaths from 2008 through 2010, according to the Idaho Transportation Department.
Ellsworth emphasized that texting is especially dangerous because it distracts visually, physically and mentally.
Idaho’s measure would slap offenders with an $85 fine and a non-moving traffic infraction that wouldn’t add points to the violator’s driving record.
Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, a former Idaho State Police trooper, said teen drivers would likely attract the most citations under the new law, a belief that prompted him to argue for making texting while driving a crime below the misdemeanor level.
“I don’t think we want to punish them with a criminal record,” Wills said. “It should be a wake-up call for everyone.”
But some lawmakers weren’t convinced the police can adequately enforce the bill as it’s written. Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, voted against the bill and questioned how police could determine whether a driver was visiting a website on their smartphone rather than sending a text message.
“This applies specifically to the manual preparation of a text message,” Crane said. “It would arguably apply not to looking at a website.”
The Idaho Sheriff’s Association has said admissions of guilt will be crucial to enforcing the legislation.
“It’s going to be limited, as many other laws are,” Wills said. “We do not have the authority to go in and actually see what they were doing on the phone.”
The Senate approved the measure in February but will have to sign off on House amendments that expand the ban to emergency and law enforcement personnel and eliminate adding points to an offender’s license.
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