Distracted driving is the new drunken driving, with a toll Idaho lawmakers are ignoring

In 2006, a young man in Utah was on his way to work texting while driving at 55 mph. His car veered across the yellow line and caused an accident that killed two rocket scientists on their way to work on the next booster for the space shuttle. Reggie Shaw’s focus that morning – until the text came in – was on his upcoming LDS mission and eventual marriage. Those plans changed instantly, as he would spend the next three years with his plans on hold, finally taking responsibility for his actions, and getting a short jail term and community service.

Reggie would turn his tragedy into a national campaign calling attention to distracted driving and how our nation and states could deal with it. He was invited to the White House to speak on the issue. In the words of Matt Richtel, who authored Reggie’s story, “A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention,” Reggie had a remarkable transformation, emerging as a national spokesman for distracted driving laws.

According to the University of Utah Applied Cognition Lab, the odds of getting into a crash are four times higher when a driver is talking on the cellphone, the same odds of crashing when driving drunk. For texting and driving, the statistics are even more startling. According to the National Safety Council, texting while driving is six times more likely to cause an accident than driving under the influence of alcohol, which is why experts in recent years have labeled distracted driving the new drunken driving. There are many reasons for distracted driving – food and drink, kids, pets or interactive dashboard screens – but the leading cause of distracted driving is talking or texting while driving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration claims that it takes 4.6 seconds to text, enough time to drive the length of a football field blind. The distraction is not just the conversation or texting. New research at the University of Iowa finds there to be a problem with what it calls “attentional disengagement” — the time to reorient after actual cell phone use, a very few seconds, but just long enough to pile on to the 1.6 million crashes annually caused by cell phone use while driving.

Sixteen states recognize these dangers and have enacted laws banning the use of hand-held cellphones while driving. Idaho is not one of them, but it does ban texting while driving. Meanwhile, Hailey, Idaho Falls, Ketchum, Pocatello and Sandpoint have gone one step beyond and followed the lead of the 16 states that ban the use of cellphones while driving, whether it’s texting or talking.

That could all change if Rep. Chad Christensen, R-Ammon, has anything to say about it. His proposed legislation will prohibit any city in Idaho from banning the use of cellphones while driving. So here we are in Idaho, only in Idaho, where the latest science says it’s not just the distraction of texting that causes accidents and deaths, but cellphone use while driving, period. So what’s the Idaho solution? “Let’s put the car in reverse. Let’s clear the books of any laws in any city that declares cellphone use while driving illegal.”

This is another bill for the Dead on Arrival Committee. Instead, the Local Government Committee printed the bill for a hearing. It flies in the face of everything we know about the dangers of cellphone use and driving and, as we used to say in the Legislature in which I served, kill it before it has babies.

What the state of Idaho should be considering this session is an outright ban on cellphone use while driving in keeping with the science of distraction and the latest evidence from statistics. More than 3,000 motorists a year are killed in crashes involving distracted drivers. If we care about our kids in Idaho, the numbers are even scarier. The fatal crash rate for teens using cellphones while driving is three times greater than for drivers 20 and older.

A company here in Boise that teaches high school students how to drive actually assigns potential drivers to a street corner where they have to record driving habits as cars go by. They count and record the times they see drivers talking on a cellphone, eating or drinking, playing loud music, or texting and driving. Apparently, seeing is believing as far as these drivers’ education instructors are concerned, and they hope witnessing such distractions will discourage these future drivers from using phones while driving.

According to a driver’s ed instructor in the Boise School District, parents are required to attend one session of their students’ classes, and when they are asked whether they talk or text while driving, all hands go up. It will be a culture change for adults and teens alike, but there was a day when no one thought state government could ever get drivers to wear seat belts ... until advocates changed the thinking by showing the lives saved by such laws.

So here’s an idea. If we teach our young drivers the consequences of distracted driving by taking them to the scene of the “potential crime” and observing drivers and their distractions, then members of the Idaho Legislature should escape those stuffy committee rooms and line up outside the Capitol at 8th and State to record drivers and their distractions, just like those learning to drive. Perhaps that will help them see the merit of cities dealing with the issue of cellphone use while driving until such time as the Legislature passes a statewide ban.

Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Readers Corner on Boise State Public Radio and is a member of the Statesman editorial board.