A law written to reduce distracted driving accidents caused by texting has done little or nothing to solve the problem, a key House committee chair said Thursday.
Idaho Transportation Department data reveal distracted driving accidents up a few percentage points in the law’s third year.
Electronic devices caused 27 percent of distracted driving accidents in 2014, up from 23 percent in 2013 and 24 percent in 2012.
Other car occupants -- passengers -- came in as the top cause of distracted driving accidents in each of the past three years.
House Transportation and Defense Committee Chairman Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, gave his take on the increase in device-related crashes. “It’s not doing anything,” Palmer said Thursday. “It has no effect.”
Idaho lawmakers implemented the ban in 2012. From the onset, police told legislators the law, which bans texting along with other forms of written communication, has proven tough to enforce. Several police officials announced as much just days after lawmakers gave the measure final approval in 2012.
“Basically, you’re going to have to see somebody doing it,” Lt. Paul Manning, Pocatello Police Department’s communication officer, told IdahoReporter.com at the time. “You’re going to have to catch them in the act.”
Catching them in the act isn’t easy. “When you pull somebody over, even if you saw somebody texting, they could say they were dialing a phone number,” Teresa Baker, communication director for the Idaho State Police, told Idaho Mountain Express earlier this month. “We have to go to that extra effort to prove what they were doing with their phone.”
Sun Valley Police Chief Walt Femling told the publication his officers won’t pursue texting-while-driving tickets, but would examine if texting caused an accident. If that happened, he added, the texting findings build the case for a distracted driving charge.
Palmer said the law is superfluous. “It’s just one more thing for police to deal with,” he said. “They deal with enough.”
He stops short of calling for the law’s repeal, though. “I think that’d make it worse, mostly because of all the publicity,” he said. “You have a bunch of teens who see texting’s illegal and repeal would bring a lot of publicity to it.”
Studies provide varying data on the effectiveness of banning texting behind the wheel. Some studies suggest an all-out hands-free law serves as a silver bullet, while at least one other reveals texting bans may increase accidents.
Palmer, whose chairmanship gives him power to stop bills he doesn’t like, won’t support any efforts to implement a hands-free rule in Idaho.
“I’m not going there,” he said. “Others are, but I can’t support that.”
He did not say who might pitch the idea and when it could happen.
Steve Grant, spokesman for the Idaho Transportation Department, said his agency can't comment on the validity of the law. Grant added that his agency will promote anything that encourages safety on Idaho roads.
"It's going to be an ongoing process," Grant said. "Educating the public, enforcement where possible and people just becoming comfortable with the law."
Baker did not return an email from IdahoReporter.com.
For his part, Palmer said educating the public, not stricter enforcement or a harsher law, might serve as the only wave to boost safety on Idaho roads. Government rules, he added, can’t be a fix-all.
“People shouldn’t be texting and driving,” he said. “But, government can’t fix irresponsible behavior.”