Utah is a state where lawmakers are loathe to accept the idea that consuming alcohol is strictly a personal matter. This is especially true, as it should be, when the person doing it is about to get behind the wheel of a car.
Yet the Legislature has had to be slowly dragged, bit by bit, toward grasping the fact that operating, or simply speaking on, a cellphone while driving a car creates a public menace that demands action.
The newest version of the Utah law dealing with cellphones and drivers is such an awkward political compromise, making little common or scientific sense, that the Utah Highway Patrol was out in force the other day attempting to explain it to drivers. And it would tax the just-the-facts-ma’am visage of Sgt. Joe Friday himself to keep a straight face while doing so.
Before last week, the law in Utah allowed drivers to talk on their cellphones, and to dial them, but not to text. That meant that, on the rare occasion that a driver was pulled over for texting while driving, said motorist could claim that he wasn’t texting, heaven forbid, but merely dialing. And the trooper or deputy had to let them go.
Now it is unlawful for a driver to text or dial. Or fiddle with their cellphone in other ways, such as loading or changing music. But the driver can talk on that same cellphone while hurtling down I-15 at 80 mph.
Apparently, threading this needle was the most that highway safety advocates were able to get out of the sometimes-libertarian (as long as we’re not talking about alcohol) Legislature. It’s something, but it’s not nearly enough.
Research at Utah’s own flagship university has demonstrated that just talking on a cellphone while driving is just as bad as drunk driving, a danger to the driver, the other occupants of his car, and to every other car and pedestrian unlucky enough to be nearby.
There is just something about the act of talking to someone who isn’t there that causes the mind to function differently than it does even when a driver is listening to the radio or speaking to someone seated next to her. It is as if part of the driver’s brain goes into the phone and out over the airwaves, unavailable for the many sensory and decision-making aspects of guiding a multi-ton hunk of steel down the road.
At least for another year, talking while driving will remain legal in Utah. That’s too bad. But just because the law allows us to do something stupid doesn’t mean we have to do it.
Be smarter than your legislators. Don’t talk and drive.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.