In an effort to push through a compromise on a texting-while-driving ban, members of the Idaho House voted 51-16 to approve House Bill 729, which would, if enacted, outlaw the sending of text messages by people who are also operating a car or truck. The legislation now heads to the Senate.
The bill, which was originally introduced early Friday morning by House leadership and rushed through the House legislative process, would make texting while driving an infraction in state law. The infraction would have two tiers of punishment for offenders; convictions for first-time offenses would receive a $50 fine plus court costs, which the bill's sponsor, Rep. Steve Kren, R-Nampa, estimated to be between $40 and $60. Second-time offenders would be assessed a $100 fine plus court costs, which would also be the penalty for all subsequent offenses of texting while driving. Those who violate the ban would also accumulate points with the Idaho Transportation Department in a manner similar to other driving crimes.
Lawmakers had the option to choose between two texting bills available to them. The other option was a Senate bill that still sits in the House's amending order, which would assess much steeper fines and penalties to those convicted of texting while driving. The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, altered the state's definition of inattentive driving and placed the texting ban under that section of code. Had that version passed, offenders would have been forced to pay $300 in fines, plus court costs, and the crime would have been classified as a misdemeanor. Offenders would have also faced up to 90 days in jail.
Members of the House were all over the political spectrum on the debate on the new version of the bill during debate on Friday. Several lawmakers, including Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, felt the bill wasn't perfect, but acceptable. Andrus told lawmakers that "we will not stop texting" by passing the legislation, but he hoped it would work to prevent deaths on Idaho's highway. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, echoed that sentiment, and said that the bill is not intended to be a final solution to the problem, but rather that it would allow cops to have some legislative back up when telling drivers not to text. He added that he feels this issue will continue to come up in the future as the rapid development of technology adds more ways for driver to become distracted.
"We are going to have to deal with this from this point on for years, said Hagedorn. “This is not something that is going to go away."
For others, that ban is a matter of "common sense." Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, said that the Legislature often passes bills are simply good for society and that the texting ban is one of those bills. Roberts admitted that he once tried texting while driving, which left him swerving over the white line on the right side of the road. He said the though the offense could prove difficult to enforce, the bill is "answer to concern that our society has raised before us."
For those opposing the legislations, objections fell into two camps: those who opposed the ban because it would be impossible to enforce, and those who opposed the House bill in favor of the much harsher Senate bill. Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, fell into the first camp. Patrick said that officials should not be in the business of defining every single action that could be dangerous while driving.
"We get a little carried away here," said Patrick, urging lawmakers to let the inattentive driving charge be a blanket charge to cover all dangerous behavior.
Rep. Steven Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, agreed with Patrick's assertions about the ban being unenforceable, and added that lawmakers should consider that the House bill would require prosecutors to, via a court order, access the phone records of someone suspected of texting while driving. For Hartgen, that was enough to oppose the legislation. He told lawmakers that he supports the Senate version because the burden of proof required to get a conviction would be much lower than the ban in the House version of the bill.
Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, told lawmakers that though he intended to vote for the House version of the ban, he saw a "fatal flaw" in it. He said that House Bill 729 requires that a person type and send a text message, which could be problematic in enforcement. Burgoyne told lawmakers that drivers could be typing a text message, see a cop trying to pull them over, and quickly drop the phone without sending the message, which would mean they would not have broken by the law because they didn't, in fact, send the message. Burgyone said he expects lawmakers will need to fix that language in the next legislative session.
Rep. Eric Simpson, R-Idaho Falls, said the bill is "vaguely worded" and is full of inequities. Simpson said that though sending the commonly-used phrases of "LOL" or "K" would be a violation of law under the ban, typing in a 7- or 10-digit phone number would not be. Simspon also criticized the provision in the legislation that would exempt law enforcement officials from the ban. Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, also decried that exemption.
"I don’t think it’s a good idea to create these two classes of people," said Hart.
The Senate bill will remain in the House's amending order, where it is expected to die when the Legislature adjourns.
(Note: Read IdahoReporter.com's past coverage of the Senate version of the ban here.)