This editorial was published by the Idaho Statesman of Boise.


Imagine for a minute that you’re talking on your cellphone while you’re driving your car down Fairview Avenue in Boise. You hit Cloverdale Road, and you realize you’d better put your phone down, because in a half-mile, you’re going to be within Meridian city limits, where talking on your handheld cellphone will be illegal come January.

That’s because Meridian City Council members voted last month to ban handheld cellphone use while driving, making it the seventh city in Idaho to do so.

You turn north onto Eagle Road, cross over Ustick and suddenly you’re back in Boise, making it OK to talk on your phone again. Turn left onto McMillan, and you’ll go in and out of Meridian and unincorporated Ada County for several miles.

This mish-mash of cellphone use laws is the bizarre byproduct of Meridian’s new law.

Because the state has not acted, cities are taking matters into their own hands when it comes to cellphone use while driving. In the past year, Pocatello and Idaho Falls banned the use of handheld wireless devices while operating a vehicle.

Other leaders of cities in the Treasure Valley told the Idaho Statesman that they were considering their own bans. Ada County officials have drafted an ordinance mirroring Meridian’s, according to the Idaho Press, and commissioners have encouraged other cities to follow suit.

Even if Ada County and all the cities in Ada County adopt similar bans, we’re still going to be left with the same confusion crossing over from Ada County to Canyon County, like a modern-day Dukes of Hazzard outrunning the cops to cross the county line where it’s permitted to talk on your phone again.

That’s one of the reasons we think it’s important for the state to pass a handheld cellphone ban statewide. Another reason is for public safety.

In 2012, the Idaho Legislature voted to ban drivers from texting while driving, but that law does not bar drivers from using their cellphones entirely. A statewide law that would have created stricter regulations was introduced in the Idaho Senate during the 2018 session but was ultimately killed after lawmakers deemed it an “overreach.”

In 2001, New York became the first state to ban hand-held phone conversations by all drivers. Now, 20 states and the District of Columbia have similar laws, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Texting is banned for all drivers in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia restrict cellphone use by young drivers.

The good news is that the number of distracted-driving crashes is coming down in Idaho.

After the Legislature passed a ban on texting and driving in 2012, distracted-driving crashes dropped slightly from 4,890 to 4,757, but then spiked to 5,470 by 2015, according to the Idaho Transportation Department’s 2017 statewide crash database report. That number has fallen three years in a row, down to 4,750 in 2018, the most recent year for full data.

The really good news is that those crashes are declining even as we have more drivers in Idaho, meaning the percentage of distracted-driving crashes has dropped to 19.8 percent of all crashes. Idaho’s rate of fatal and serious injury crashes due to distracted driving per 100 million miles of vehicle travel is now down to 2.21 percent.

Fatal crashes involving distracted driving dropped nearly 40 percent to 39 fatalities in 2017 but saw an uptick in 2018 to 48, making up one-fifth of all fatal crashes that year.

The bad news, of course, is that’s 48 fatalities too many, and every one of those fatalities was preventable.

Nearly a third (30 percent) of crashes involving a distraction in 2018 in Idaho involved an electronic communication device. That means that out of a total of 4,750 distracted-driving crashes, about 1,400 were caused by an electronic device. The percentage of fatal crashes involving distracted driving involved an electronic communication device nearly half the time, or 44 percent of the time.

The economic cost of crashes involving distracted driving was more than $820 million in 2017 in Idaho, according to the Idaho Transportation Department. This represents 20 percent of the total costs of Idaho crashes.

We don’t buy the argument that we already have an inattentive driving law on the books. That usually gets enforced after a crash has already happened. A handheld cellphone ban would help to prevent the inattentive driving to begin with.

We also don’t buy the argument that businesses rely on cellphone use while driving, so it’s unfair to them. Technology is so cheap these days, it’s easy to buy a bluetooth device or simply use your speakerphone. It’s also as easy as pulling over to the side of the road to make or answer a call.

We’d like to see the Legislature take this up again in the next session, especially because more cities are passing their own ordinances, creating a patchwork of laws.

In the meantime, we encourage Ada County commissioners and city councils across the Treasure Valley to pass similar bans of handheld cellphone use while driving.

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