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IFPD operation warns drivers not to use cellphones

December 21, 2018

If you saw a cavalry of police cars pulling over Idaho Falls drivers Wednesday, it wasn’t because they were spreading Christmas cheer.

The Idaho Falls Police Department issued warnings to drivers about using cellphones. About a dozen officers pulled people over for talking or texting on cellphones while driving.

Police did not issue citations for talking on phones while driving. Instead, officers passed out flyers explaining Idaho Falls’ new city ordinance, which bans the use of handheld mobile devices while operating a motor vehicle. Police will issue citations starting on Jan. 1.

The City Council approved unanimously an ordinance banning cellphone use while driving. The ordinance technically took effect a week after it was approved, however police decided to educate the public before issuing tickets.

Drivers can use hands-free devices to talk on the phone. Only handheld devices are banned.

Police made approximately 115 stops during the operation, according to city public information officer Bud Cranor. About 60 percent of the drivers were from Bonneville County, and 60 percent were female.

An officer in an unmarked car acted as a spotter and, after spotting a driver on their cellphone, radio signaled to an officer in a patrol car who made the traffic stop. Police invited members of the media to ride in unmarked cars and observe the operation.

It was an educational day for people pulled over by police, who learned that the new ordinance is no joke, and it was educational for police officers, who learned that a lot of drivers are still using their cellphones.

Police planned the operation soon after the City Council approved the cellphone ban, according to Police Chief Bryce Johnson, who participated in the operation, driving an unmarked car.

“We knew we didn’t want to go right to writing people tickets,” Johnson said. “We thought it would be better for them. We really aren’t looking for tickets, we’re looking for compliance.”

Johnson, who made about 12 stops in three hours (a comparatively low number because he worked solo), said most of the drivers he stopped were locals and they knew about the cellphone ban. Many of them thanked Johnson for the warning, he said.

“They were actually pretty happy,” he said. “I think they were thrilled not to get a ticket.”

City Councilman Jim Freeman was also invited to ride with police during the operation. Freeman introduced the ordinance to ban cellphones while driving.

“It’s something that’s always bothered me,” he said. “The more people have cellphones, the more people are using them in their car.”

Freeman, who hopes the state will pass a similar law during the upcoming legislative session, said talking on a phone while driving is comparable to driving under the influence.

“It’s proven to be just as distracting,” he said. “I think it’s one of the most selfish things people can do.”

In addition to safety concerns, both Freeman and police officers say the new law will be a tool for police to make traffic stops, which can lead to discoveries of other illegal activity.

Dustin Cook, an IFPD detective who has been with the department for more than a decade, said police use traffic stops as a means to investigate other potential crimes.

“That’s how you make contact with people out in the community,” Cook said. “I made a career doing traffic stops.”

While most Idaho Falls residents would agree the cellphone ban will improve traffic safety, many people complained because police are exempt from the law. They can still use cellphones and in-car computers while they drive.

Freeman said the public’s perception is, “If I have to do it, the police should, too.” But, Freeman said, the police have to use their phones in certain situations, especially when more privacy than the radio can provide is warranted.

Cook said multitasking while driving is part of the job. Whether it’s looking at license plates, talking on the radio or just keeping an eye on what’s happening off the road, police are constantly observing while they drive, and they’re trained to do it safely, Cook said.

“We keep off the phone, off the computer as much as we can,” he said.

Starting next month, IFPD will issue $100 citations for first-time offenders of the new law and $200 citations for second-time offenders.

Johnson said he’s hoping people voluntarily abide by the law and the number of people on their phones will steadily decline. And if they don’t follow the law, they might be spending their Christmas bonuses on tickets. Wednesday’s operation proved that police are quite good at spotting cellphone users.

“It’s not really that hard to enforce,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty easy to see people on their phones.”

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