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Businesses back texting while driving ban 

Idaho lawmakers probably won’t encounter much opposition to a bill that would ban texting while driving from many transportation-heavy businesses that fear for the safety of their own workers.

“I definitely would agree with the ban on texting,” said Jeffrey Langan, vice president of Boise-based CSDI Construction Inc., a construction management and general contracting firm. “It wasn’t many years ago that we didn’t have texting, and everything seemed to work just fine. I’m on the road a lot, and … every two or three months I see somebody blast through a stop sign as if it isn’t there.”

An effort to ban drivers from sending text messages on their mobile devices has gained bipartisan support in the Idaho Legislature and will be debated during the 2010 legislative session. Lawmakers may also consider a bill that would restrict cell phone calls in vehicles to hands-free devices.

We wrote about the topic in the December issue of Idaho Business & Law.

Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, introduced two such bills in 2009, but they died in committee.

Since then, Bock has picked up the support of the Republican chairs of the Senate and House transportation committees, and he says he’s now confident that a bill will pass.

“We might have a fight about people scrambling to be co-sponsors,” Bock said. “It’s a situation where we have a type of behavior that is so commonplace that it is one that should be addressed. (The texting bill) is so black and white. Very few people think about it very long unless you’re 16 or 17. For the most part, people do react pretty strongly against texting.”

Momentum has been building in statehouses across the country to crack down on drivers distracted by their mobile devices. Approximately 20 states have banned texting over the past year or so, with nine more placing restrictions on younger drivers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The wave of legislation follows the release of a number of studies highlighting the dangers of driving while texting or chatting on cell phones.

A study released in July by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that texting raised the risk of a collision or near-miss by a factor of 23 for commercial truck drivers – based on 3 million miles of driving data over three years.

University of Utah researchers using a driving simulator concluded that texting makes drivers six times more likely to crash, more than driving while drunk.

Recognizing the risks, insurance companies have been pushing companies to establish policies that restrict employees from using cell phones while driving.

Brian Ellsworth, principal at Ellsworth Kincaid Construction Inc., said the Boise firm’s insurance carrier pushed the company to create a policy in 2006, but he said he didn’t need much convincing. The policy says that employees must pull over to answer a cell phone call. Texting is also forbidden on the road.

“The problem is out of control,” he said. “I think it’s every bit as serious as drinking and driving. … You just see everybody doing it because there’s no law against it.”

Other companies, though, have so far relied on workers to make judgment calls about using cell phones in vehicles.

The Simplot Co., which maintains one of the state’s largest trucking fleets, does not currently have a policy on employee texting while driving company vehicles, though the company is working on one, said spokesman David Cuoio.

“We like to think that all of our employees drive safely and use common sense whether they are in company vehicles or their own personal vehicles,” Cuoio said. “We are forming the policy so that it’s firm in everyone’s mind exactly what is and is not acceptable as far as texting while driving a company vehicle.”

Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, has been persuaded that the state must take action.

“My mind’s made up that we need to do something,” McGee said. “The objections you hear are from folks saying, ‘You’re trying to take away my freedom.’ I’ve spent my political career trying not to take away people’s freedom, but this is becoming more and more dangerous that we need to have a discussion about it.”

The Republican chairwoman of the House Transportation and Defense Committee, Rep. JoAn Wood of Rigby, also now supports a texting ban, though she said she wants to make sure that the state doesn’t impose on trucking companies that rely on sending route changes or other updates to drivers via on-board electronic communication systems.

She said the state’s statute against inattentive driving does not seem to be sufficient.

“It doesn’t really spell it out, and somehow or another some people need to have it spelled out as to exactly what constitutes inattentive driving,” she said. “There’s going to be no doubt about it that it’s going to be inattentive driving, and it’s going to carry a heavy fine.”

The Idaho Trucking Association would support a crackdown on texting as long as the restrictions are confined to cell phones and mobile devices, said president and CEO Kathy Fowers. The association believes truck drivers shouldn’t be on their cell phones while driving, though Fowers said use of mobile devices seems more rampant among other drivers.

“I think it’s abused by just the everyday traveler out there,” she said. “You’re not going to see a truck driver using his cell phone driving in downtown Boise, whereas you see all kinds of drivers of cars and pickups that do. Yes, there’s definitely frustration from truck drivers.”

About Simon Shifrin