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Want to use your phone and drive in Idaho? This new proposal may make you think twice

A state lawmaker from Meridian has proposed legislation to create a statewide law banning the use of handheld devices, such as cellphones, while driving. The measure would prevent any city or county from passing their own similar local laws addressing the issue.

“We have lots of laws all over the state that are different and varying, so this will take that out,” Idaho House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Palmer said, calling his legislation a statewide “distracted driving bill.”

“Basically, if a policeman sees you and you are doing something in your vehicle that distracts you from operating your vehicle properly, then he has the ability to write you an infraction ticket,” which costs about $90, Palmer said.

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.”

The committee agreed to print the bill — as well as a bill that would establish a transportation endowment fund to pay for backlogged projects — and hold a committee hearing on the measures at a later date. They are the first two pieces of legislation to be introduced during the 2020 session.

Palmer noted “there are several bills running around this building that are similar” to his distracted driving bill. He said his intention is not to immediately hold a committee hearing on his bill, but rather review the other bills and then decide which version will be “the best bill we can come up with to keep people safe.”

The Meridian City Council passed an ordinance Oct. 22 that would prohibit the use of cellphones when driving, making Meridian the first city in the Treasure Valley to enact such a ban. Retiring Mayor Tammy de Weerd cast the tie-breaking vote.

Palmer made an unsuccessful bid become Meridian’s new mayor following de Weerd’s retirement.

If Palmer’s bill passes as written, it would negate Meridian’s new ordinance and supplant it with a statewide law. Other cities in the state, such as Idaho Falls, Ketchum and Pocatello, have passed similar ordinances.

Palmer’s second proposal calls for creating a transportation endowment fund from which interest generated would be used to help pay for Idaho’s backlog of transportation projects.

Palmer proposed such a plan as an amendment to a bill last session, but it was not acted upon because the session came to a close.

He told the committee, had his plan been enacted last session, the state would have brought in $17 million in interest.

“So, without going to the taxpayer and collecting more money to pay for transportation, we had $17 million,” he said.

“Short version is we are moving some of the funds that we have in rainy day into a higher earning interest account that is still a very safe account, it is still there for emergencies, it can always be used for that … but as we build up the fund we can peel it off,” he said.

No money would be spent on transportation projects until the following year after legislative approval, Palmer said.

About Cynthia Sewell Idaho Statesman