A bill to make it easier to enforce Utah’s ban on texting while driving advanced Friday, but lawmakers warned it eventually will die unless it is changed because it comes close now to entirely banning use of hand-held phones while driving.
The Senate Transportation Committee voted 2-1 to send SB253 to the full Senate.
Bill sponsor Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said when drivers are pulled over for texting now, they often claim they were instead doing such legal activities as dialing in a phone number to make a voice call or putting in coordinates for directions by GPS.
His bill would no longer exempt those manual activities with a hand-held device. It would allow hands-free operations.
Sen. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, said he is uncomfortable with the language, but voted to advance it to full Senate to provide time for possible changes — and to bring more media attention to the problem of texting while driving.
Urquhart urged Harper to do so, and promised to work on changes. He said more debate "will put in people minds: ‘Look, be careful with the devices.’ That’s a huge reason we have laws on the books. It’s not to nail people, fine them. It’s to encourage different behavior."
Urquhart was urged to push the bill by Leslee Henson. A year ago next Tuesday, she and her husband were struck while walking in St. George in a multi-car accident caused by a driver who was texting.
Her husband was killed instantly. Leslee suffered fractures to her neck and back, plus head trauma that led to 5,000 stitches and staples in her skull and separated nerves in her eyes. She has spent the past year fighting texting while driving.
"The texting law right now is just too vague. It’s too hard to enforce," she said.
Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, opposed the bill but did so tearfully, saying she has empathy for families like the Hensons who have suffered from texting accidents.
"Instead of listing every little thing you can’t do, I want to say that anything that distracts you while driving should be against the law," she said.
Committee Chairman Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, supported the bill, even though he said it is not perfect. "As I drive in from Vernal once or twice a week … it is amazing to me how many people are typing as they go down the highway. If they were reading a newspaper, we would pull them over."
While Utah bans texting by all drivers, it only bans use of hand-held cell phones by drivers younger than 18 years old. Attempts to ban cell phones by all drivers has met stiff resistance in past years, and the ban on younger teen drivers was enacted just last year.
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