Joe Palmer 1-8-20

Idaho House Transportation Chairman Joe Palmer, center, shares a laugh with House Transportation Committee Secretary Joyce McKenzie before the start of the committee’s meeting on Wednesday; at right is Rep. Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins.

House Transportation Chairman Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, ran for mayor of Meridian and lost in November, and that city in October was the first in the Treasure Valley to enact an ordinance to ban driving while using a hand-held cell phone. Today, Palmer introduced legislation that would overturn Meridian's ban as of July 1, along with those of all other Idaho cities or other local authorities. But Palmer said his bill would also "fix the problem" by enacting a new statewide distracted-driving law that would allow police to cite dangerous distracted drivers, whether they're talking on the phone, eating or grooming themselves.

Palmer said his bill has nothing to do with his run for mayor of Meridian -- he actually drafted it last year. "I had this ready," he said, when Rep. Chad Christensen, R-Ammon, introduced unsuccessful legislation to flat-out ban local ordinances requiring hands-free devices for drivers, which more than half a dozen Idaho cities, including Meridian and Idaho Falls, have enacted. "It pre-empted the cities, and didn't do anything else," Palmer said. "I said, 'Why don't we draft a bill that pre-empts them but also fix the problem?"

"I don't believe an all-out ban is necessary, because we have a lot of rural areas," Palmer said. "But I certainly think it's not safe when you're in traffic to use a cell phone."

Palmer's bill would allow police who deem a driver to be distracted by an activity unrelated to driving that "interferes with the safe operation" of the vehicle, or endangers pedestrians or other road users, to issue the driver an infraction citation. Those, like Meridian's current ordinance, carry fines of $90 plus court costs.

Palmer's bill also would eliminate Idaho's current narrow law banning texting while driving, which has proven difficult to enforce as it doesn't cover other activities with a hand-held device while driving. And it would specify that the new distracted driving offense would "not result in violation points," and "not be deemed to be a moving traffic violation" for car insurance purposes.

Palmer said he's just introducing the bill, not rushing to hold a hearing on it; he said he's heard there are others out there as well. "It may be a better bill," he said. "There may be a better bill in the Senate."

"What I want is the best bill we can come up with that works the best to keep people safe," Palmer said.

The House Transportation & Defense Committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill. Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, said, "We've got to do something about the inconsistency of ordinances between cities, especially Boise and Meridian -– we don't even know where the boundaries of Meridian are, and I appreciate you bringing this bill so we can make some progress on that."

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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