MERIDIAN — Meridian City Council punted a decision to ban hand-held phone use while driving at its Tuesday meeting.
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.
At the Tuesday meeting, the Meridian council continued the public hearing for the ordinance to Oct. 8. The proposed ordinance would make Meridian streets safer and decrease road rage, Meridian Police Chief Jeff Lavey said.
“We have to have laws in place to show people and hold them accountable when they make a wrong decision,” Lavey said. “We’ve watched year after year after year, and it is getting worse.”
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.
There isn’t a mechanism for law enforcement to penalize drivers for being on their phone while they drive, Lavey said. Idaho law only bans texting while driving, not other types of use. Lavey said Idaho’s reckless driving and inattentive driving laws would both be inappropriate. In order to charge someone with reckless driving, the police have to catch them committing at least three moving violations, like speeding, aggressive driving or driving on the sidewalk. Inattentive driving, a lower offense, is a “after-the-fact violation,” Lavey said.
“You must cause the danger and then you get a ticket,” Lavey said. “We see that often in Meridian where someone will actually be not paying attention, cause a crash and then it is appropriate for us to give a ticket. That is not how we want to work things.”
Both reckless driving and inattentive driving are misdemeanors. Lavey said he would like the proposed ordinance to serve as an educational tool and have violations of the ordinance result in an infraction. In Idaho, non-speeding-related traffic infractions come with a $90 fine.
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.
Lavey said he doesn’t have faith that the legislature will pass a ban on hand-held cellphone use soon and he doesn’t believe the city can “wait any longer.”
“Can we wait knowing the burden it puts on everyone’s lives?” Lavey said.
During Tuesday’s discussion Councilwoman Genesis Milam said she was “supportive mostly” of the ordinance, but she didn’t see cellphone use while a vehicle was stopped as a major traffic hazard.
Lavey said the Meridian Police Department does see crashes when people use their phones at traffic lights.
Bryan Leisle, member of the Meridian Transportation Commission, spoke in favor of the ordinance, stating that it make roads safer for cyclists and pedestrians.
In 2017, almost 6,000 pedestrians and 800 cyclists were killed in traffic crashes in the U.S., according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
During the discussion Council Vice President Luke Cavener said before the city makes its decision he’d like more residents to give the city feedback on the proposed ordinance.
“Come and testify and tell us what you think,” Cavener said. “Comments on Facebook and Twitter DMs don’t count.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Sept. 25 with additional information from the hearing.