Texting while driving could become illegal for Montanans under 18 if legislation debated Wednesday in the House Transportation Committee moves forward.
House Bill 178 would forbid any minors to use a “wireless communication device” to type, submit or read any “written communication” such as a text or email while operating a vehicle on the road, even if it's not moving.
The bill calls for a fine of $50 for a first offense, $100 for a second offense and $200 for any offenses after that. It exempts messages sent to first responders to report an emergency and allows messages from cars parked on a road’s shoulder.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, would bring Montana in line with the rest of the country. Since 2014, it has been the only state without a statewide texting-while-driving ban.
Washington became the first state to ban texting while driving in 2007, a month before Apple released the original iPhone.
“I think each of us here in this room has heard the expression that our children are our future, and many of us have probably repeated that. And I think adolescents certainly fit into that category, too. It’s not just elementary-age children,” Anderson said. “And I think this bill is one of the things that will help that group of students have the opportunity to have a positive future and be positive contributing citizens to our state and their communities.”
The Fort Peck Reservation and 12 Montana localities, including the six largest cities, had some restrictions on phone use while driving as of February 2017, according to the state Department of Transportation. But the MDT calculated at the time that distracted driving laws covered only 38 percent of Montana’s population.
Most of the Montana cities with distracted driving laws just forbid texting and using a handheld device while driving. The laws in Missoula and Helena apply even to bicyclists.
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Anderson’s bill does not ban cities from passing texting-while-driving ordinances more stringent than the state law.
Representatives for MDT, the Montana Trial Lawyers Association and Motor Carriers of Montana, as well as Verizon and AT&T, support Anderson’s bill.
Todd Harwell of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services told the committee that 54.2 percent of Montana high school students said in a 2017 survey they had texted or emailed while driving in the last 30 days. The finding was part of the Office of Public Instruction’s biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
“A lot of kids are doing this,” Harwell said. “So I just ask you to support this bill. It’ll prevent needless injuries, disabilities and death.”
AAA lobbyist John Iverson told legislators he had been walked into by a distracted minor on the Capitol’s main staircase earlier Wednesday.
“These kids shouldn’t be walking and running a cell phone. They certainly shouldn’t be driving and running a cell phone,” Iverson said, adding that minors “don’t possess the ability to prioritize what’s important at the moment” when driving.
The Governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning noted a technical issue with the bill’s enforcement: The bill dictates higher fines for repeat offenses but would not charge texting while driving citations against driving records.
The committee took no action on the legislation.