Meridian could join the list of Idaho cities prohibiting hand-held cellphone use while driving.

“Unfortunately with the growth we’re facing in this city and in this valley, we need to have 100% concentration on what we’re doing behind that wheel and to get the heck off our phones,” Meridian Police Chief Jeff Lavey said at Tuesday’s Meridian City Council work session.

At the work session, Lavey asked council to consider creating a hands-free cellphone ordinance after hearing support from “a lot of members of the public.”

“Not a day goes by that we don’t have road rage, car crashes, distracted driving, impatience and frustration with traffic on the roadways, and unfortunately road infrastructure isn’t going to catch up,” Lavey said. One way to improve driving conditions, he said, is for drivers to get off their phones.

Over the coming months, city staff will gather information from the public, gauging whether there is interest in the ban. Details of the ordinance, including penalties for offenders, were not discussed on Tuesday.

If passed into law, the ordinance could make Meridian roads safer. In 2018 there were 81 accidents in Meridian where drivers admitted to using a cellphone — such as texting, reviewing a text or email, looking at caller ID, talking on the phone or reviewing GPS. The city also saw an increase of over 120 crashes from 2017 to 2018, Lavey said.

Distracted driving was a factor in 19% of the 25,851 motor vehicle crashes in 2017 in Idaho, and 39 people were killed in distracted-driving crashes that year, according to the Idaho Transportation Department.

Using a hand-held phone while driving can increase the risk of crashing by 2 to 3.5 times, according to a 2019 study by Virginia Tech. While using a hands-free cellphone can cause a small delay in driving reactions, it has a much lower degree of crash risk, the study said.

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Reactions from council were split on Tuesday. Council President Joe Borton and Vice President Luke Cavener spoke in favor of a citywide ban, while Councilman Ty Palmer and Councilwoman Genesis Milam agreed the issue should be handled on a state level. Milam expressed concerns that the law could cause confusion for commuters using Meridian roads to get across the Treasure Valley.

Earlier this year legislation forbidding the use of hand-held cellphones while driving was killed in the Idaho Senate. The bill’s penalties — a $50 fine for a first infraction, $100 for a second offense, and $200 for a third offense, with fines doubling if the distracted driver hit someone — were designed to educate drivers above punishing them, the Idaho Press previously reported.

Handheld cellphone use while driving is now banned in 16 states, including neighboring Oregon, Washington and Nevada, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Idaho law only bans texting while driving, not other types of handheld device use; that law’s proven difficult to enforce.

Similar citywide bans have been passed in Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Hailey and Ketchum, which vary in severity from a citation to an infraction with a $80 to $100 fine depending on the city.

Drivers in these cities can still make calls as long as they use a hands-free device. Hailey’s ordinance includes several exceptions, like reporting unsafe driving, traffic accidents or fires, when a driver fears for his life or when the car is parked outside a travel lane.

“The goal is to have the cellphone out of your hand so you can focus on driving down the road,” Lavey said.

“(The ordinance) is really just trying to force people to do the right thing, and unfortunately we’ve hoped people would do the right thing for years and they don’t,” Lavey said. “That’s to put their phone down and drive.”

Patty Bowen is the Meridian Press reporter. You can reach her at pbowen@idahopress.com or follow her on Twitter @pattybowenMP.

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