Proposed bill to ban cell phone use while driving is steering its way back to the Utah Legislature

The wreck of a Nissan Titan that veered off Interstate 15 near Parowan and went airborne is seen on December 26, 2019. Utah Highway Patrol blamed a driver distracted by looking for their cell phone as reason for the crash. | File photo courtesy Utah Highway Patrol, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A proposed bill that could affect every driver on Utah’s roadways, but has failed to pass through the Utah State Legislature for years, is set to steer its way back before lawmakers for the upcoming 2020 legislative session.

Stock image, St. George News

The Distracted Driver Amendments, known officially this session as HB 101, would make holding and using a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle a primary offense, and allow law enforcement the ability to pull someone over for violating it.

The bill dictates that drivers use hands-free devices only and has once again been brought forth by Rep. Carol Spackman-Moss, D-Holladay, with hopes of finding more support among her colleagues this time around.

“It’s about driving safely for your own sake and the sake of others,” Rep. Moss said in a recent interview.

Distraction comes in many forms, but anything that pulls attention off the road can be disastrous. Talking on the phone, sending a text or instant message, and using GPS navigation, are all ways to be easily distracted and endanger yourself and other drivers. 

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 9% of all teen motor vehicle crashes nationwide in 2017 involved some form of distracted driving, and 3,166 motorists lost their lives due to distraction-affected crashes. Of those who died, 229 were teens 15-19 years old.

Not everyone is convinced that enacting more legislation to prevent distracted driving will be the correct solution to the problem. In a statement posted to their website, the Libertas Institute repeated their concerns from previous years, stating that the new law is extreme and unwarranted.

Criminally punishing any interaction with a phone is unnecessarily excessive and a significant over-criminalization of an activity that only accounts for the cause of just over one percent of highway fatalities,” the statement reads. “Hands-free operation has not been shown to be a safer task for a driver. In fact, there are many distracting tasks that drivers commonly engage in that are just as, if not more dangerous, but society doesn’t seek to criminalize that behavior.”

If passed, HB 101 mandates that “an individual may not manually manipulate a handheld wireless communication device while operating a motor vehicle” except in limited cases like emergencies or for reporting criminal activity. It requires that cell phones be placed on the dashboard, windshield or inside the vehicle’s console while in operation, with exceptions for a “single swipe” or tap to place the phone on speaker if the vehicle does not employ Bluetooth technology.

“People are still texting and that’s against the law, but … law enforcement can’t stop it because it’s not a primary offense. This bill would make it possible for law enforcement to pull someone over if they see them holding the phone and driving,” Rep. Moss said.

She told St. George News that the legislation is nearly identical to last year, but the potential fine for violations has been changed for this iteration.

“The first offense would be an infraction,” she explained, “but the second offense, if it involved damage or injuries. … would be a second degree misdemeanor or higher if a judge ruled it caused severe injuries or death.”

The legislation has the support of law enforcement agencies and Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan will sponsor the bill in the house. Moss has hopes it will also draw support from her fellow representatives from past years.

The bill was introduced on Jan. 3, and sent to the Legislative Research and General Counsel for input.

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