Hand-held cell phone use

Meridian City Council, in a vote that required the mayor to break a tie, passed an ordinance on Oct. 22, 2019, banning handheld cellphone use while driving.

City staff and police are solidifying the details for a proposed ban on using hand-held devices while driving in Meridian.

Earlier this year, the city began conversations about creating an ordinance banning drivers from using hand-held devices on Meridian roads. If council passed the ordinance, Meridian would be the first city in the Treasure Valley to require drivers to only use cellphones while driving if it is hands free.

Meridian City Council will continue discussions about the ban at its next meeting on Oct. 15.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Meridian Police Chief Jeff Lavey recommended violation of the proposed ordinance be an infraction with a $90 fine. He, along with a handful of residents, spoke in favor of the ban.

“Meridian has an awesome opportunity to be the leader in the Treasure Valley,” Lavey said on Tuesday, “to do something that will support public safety.”

A poll conducted on the city of Meridian’s Nextdoor account found that roughly 74% of the 553 respondents think it should be illegal to hold or use hand-held devices while driving.

There isn’t a mechanism for law enforcement to penalize drivers for being on their phone while they drive, the Idaho Press previously reported. Idaho law only bans texting while driving — not other types of use — and Idaho’s reckless driving and inattentive driving laws would both be inappropriate.

Earlier this year, a bill forbidding the use of hand-held cellphones while driving died 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 driver hit someone — were designed to educate drivers above punishing them, the Idaho Press previously reported.

On Tuesday, Western Ada Recreation District Chairman Shaun Wardle, who’s running for Meridian mayor, said the ban should be a state issue, but he believes the city should take a “leadership role in this valley.”

“We are most affected by traffic,” Wardle said. “For us to take stand and for us to put an ordinance in place, this will allow us to not just educate Meridian residents, but also those who pass through to and from.”

Lavey agreed, stating that the state Legislature has failed to act for numerous years.

“We still have the authority as a city to enact our own ordinances, which I think we should do until the time the state Legislature decides to act,” Lavey said. “It’s coming, whether it is next year or two years from now.”

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Lavey said he’s heard from residents that the city doesn’t need an ordinance because it is “common sense to not be on your phone while driving.”

“I absolutely agree; however, we have been waiting for common sense to kick in, and it hasn’t,” he said. “That’s why we have speeding laws, that’s why we have DUI laws, that’s why we have running red lights laws, because common sense does not make us do the right thing. Sometimes there has to be a consequence.”

“We want that consequence to be in monetary value, not in the value of human life,” he continued.

Drivers in 81 crashes in Meridian in 2018 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 saw an increase of more than 120 crashes from 2017 to 2018, Lavey told the Idaho Press in July.

At the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting city attorney Bill Nary suggested violations of the proposed ordinance be an infraction with a $25 fine — the current fine for texting and driving in the state. Lavey spoke against the $25 fine, noting that it wasn’t enough to deter people from using their phones.

“That’s the thing we’re going to be dealing with, is people saying ‘It’s $25. I don’t want to give the city $25, but I will if it isn’t going to affect my insurance,’” Lavey said.

Lavey said the ticket isn’t meant to be a money-maker, but he believes a $90 fine would be more effective. The fine would come along with a court fee, which is roughly $60 for an infraction, Nary said.

If the city passes the ordinance, Lavey said he was thinking it would go into place Jan, 1, 2020, or at least 60 days after council approved it. That would give city staff time to do a “mega social media campaign,” a “media blitz” and notify residents in their water bills, he said.

Handheld cellphone use while driving is banned in 16 states, including neighboring Oregon, Washington and Nevada, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Citywide bans similar to the one Meridian is proposing 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.

While visiting Hailey, Sun Valley and Ketchum last week, Lavey said he noticed the cities had several signs up reminding drivers that hand-held drives are not allowed on the road. He recommended the city install similar signs in Meridian.

By passing the ordinance, Lavey said it will hopefully “get the message to the state that instead of having inconsistent laws amongst these cites, they need to do what is right and have a state law.”

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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