West Ada

Meridian bans handheld phone use when driving. Here’s when you’ll start getting tickets

Meridian Police Chief Jeff Lavey approached the City Council with a brief message: “Tonight, you have a chance to cement your legacy when it comes to public safety.”

After weeks of deliberation and public hearings before the council, Lavey on Tuesday night asked the City Council to finally approve an ordinance that would prohibit the use of cellphones when driving in Meridian. The ordinance passed, with Mayor Tammy de Weerd casting the tie-breaking vote. Council members Anne Little Roberts, Joe Borton and Treg Bernt voted for the ordinance, while Ty Palmer, Luke Cavener and Genesis Milam voted against.

“It leads to traffic accidents. It leads to fatalities,” said City Council President Joe Borton. “Our police and fire cut children and adults out of cars because people use cellphones when they drive. When I think about the cost to our community of waiting another day to have this opportunity, the time has run its course. The time is now.”

The ban does still allow for drivers to use cellphones if they are operating them hands-free, such as with voice activation.

“This particular law says you cannot have your cellphone in your hand while you’re on the public roadway, whether the car is moving or not,” Lavey said.

In 2012, the Idaho Legislature voted to ban drivers from texting while driving, but that law does not bar drivers from using their cellphones entirely. A statewide law that would have created stricter regulations was introduced in the Idaho Senate during the 2018 session but was ultimately killed in February after lawmakers deemed it an “overreach.”

Cities around Idaho have taken regulation into their own hands. In the last year, Pocatello and Idaho Falls banned the use of handheld wireless devices while operating a vehicle.

Meridian is the first city in the Treasure Valley to pass such a ban. But Lavey said that Kuna, Ada County and Garden City are also considering similar restrictions on cellphone use.

Borton said he did not take the ordinance lightly.

“The liberty of operating a vehicle is important,” Borton said. “But when you do that on the public streets — with all of our family and coworkers and friends on the streets with us — we heard testimony from our law enforcement about the conflict created by cellphone use.”

Lavey said that Meridian police will immediately begin “educating the public” by pulling people over without ticketing them. Police will begin to issue tickets for violators in January 2020.

In 2016, 64 people were killed by distracted drivers in Idaho, according to the Boise Police Department. There were 4,973 distracted-driving crashes, resulting in 3,681 people injured.

“It was absolutely the right thing to do from our citizens,” Lavey said. “At least 74% of our citizens supported it ... it’s sad that the other (council members) couldn’t come on board.”

Milam argued that using cellphones while driving “prevents more road rage than it causes.”

“If you’re stuck sitting at a traffic light for 15 minutes, it allows you to do something that you need to do,” she said. “There are going to be morons that do stupid things, but I think that it helps more than it causes problems.”

De Weerd seemed surprised at Milam’s stance. “Most people that I know that get behind a wheel know they are supposed to drive,” she shot back.

Cavener, who also voted against the ordinance, said that he agrees with most of the new law, but he could not support banning cellphones while a car is stalled. “I think we need better data before we ready-aim-fire,” he said.

Bernt, who voted for the ordinance, said that he hopes the city can lead other cities in the Treasure Valley to pass similar bans.

“At the end of the day, we should not be using cellphones while driving. It is an addiction that is real and in some cases cannot be controlled,” he said. “The only way we can fix it is by taking action this evening.”

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Kate reports on West Ada and Canyon County for the Idaho Statesman. She previously wrote for the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Providence Business News. She has been published in The Atlantic and BuzzFeed News. Kate graduated from Brown University with a degree in urban studies.