According to firm scientific evidence — developed right here at the University of Utah — talking or texting on a cellphone while operating a motor vehicle results in a level of driver impairment equal to that of those who drive while intoxicated. Thus the bill approved by the Utah House, prohibiting the use of cellphones by drivers under the age of 18, is the logical equivalent of banning drunk driving for teens, but not for adults.
The fact that lawmakers aren’t willing to ban cellphone use by drivers of all ages suggests that they want to be seen as acting on a problem, but not acting so forcefully as to offend anyone who might vote against them in the next election.
The move is in a similar vein to a bill that was one of the worst ideas of the last legislative session, the one that basically would have removed meaningful sex education from Utah public schools. That bill, like the ban on cellphone use by drivers under 18, was designed to give some grown-ups the feeling of having accomplished something, but doing it in a way that had little political risk because those who would have been disadvantaged by the law were below voting age.
Fortunately, Gov. Gary Herbert applied his "It’s not broke so I’m not gonna fix it" philosophy to last year’s sex education bill. He vetoed it and lawmakers, perhaps surprised by the level of public feeling against the bill, did not even attempt an override vote.
Vetoing the cellphone bill — HB103 — would be much more difficult, both for political and policy reasons. Vetoing it, or stopping it in the Senate, would mean that it would still be legal for drivers who are under age 18 to use cellphones while driving, which, clearly, they should not.
Still, the bill is just what Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said it is, "Do as I say, not do what I do." And that’s hardly an example of wise or equitable leadership.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, is a Utah Highway Patrol officer, and so presumably knows something about hazardous driving and the sometimes horrific results of same. He also says the bill, which would carry only a $25 fine, is meant more as an educational measure than a punitive one.
But the fact is that driving while phoning is not like driving with passengers or driving after midnight, some other things that younger drivers are not allowed to do. It is like driving drunk, a behavior that has no safe age parameter.
It is a behavior that should be illegal, for everyone, all the time, period. The educational value of a law that says otherwise is something that most young people already suspect: Adults don’t always pick on people their own size.
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