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Senate OKs bill targeting distracted driving

First Published Mar 10 2014 03:08 pm • Last Updated Mar 10 2014 08:02 pm

A year ago, Leslee Henson and her husband were struck by a car while walking in St. George — an accident caused by a driver who was texting. Her husband was killed instantly and she sustained fractures to her neck and back, plus head trauma that she said led to 5,000 stitches and staples in her skull and separated nerves in her eyes.

She sat in the state Capitol to watch the Utah Senate pass SB253s1, a bill that would tighten laws against using cellphones while driving. The bill passed with a 17-8 vote and now moves to the House.

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If passed, the law would forbid not only texting, but activities like emailing, playing games and dialing phone numbers. In its original form, the bill came close to entirely banning the use of hand-held phones while driving but was loosened to accommodate concerns of some lawmakers that the ban was too restrictive. As amended, the bill would allow using GPS for navigation and talking on the phone would still be permitted. While dialing is banned under the bill, drivers would be permitted to access phone numbers using voice-command technology.

Sponsoring Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said the current law is ambiguous and is limited to just text messages. Police can’t enforce distracted driving because the law doesn’t include things like playing solitaire, he said.

Henson, who urged Urquhart to push the bill, said she eventually wants Utah to be hands-free like 11 other states that don’t allow any use of cellphones or devices while driving. The bill is a baby step, she said, but a huge accomplishment for them.

"We want lives to be saved," she said. "We don’t want any family to have to go through what we’ve been through. Now that it’s happened to us we’re more aware of the epidemic that this is."

Henson said in her mind, texting while driving is worse than drunk driving: "A drunk gets in his car not knowing what he’s doing. A texter gets in his car knowing what he’s doing, looking down and taking at least one hand off the wheel."

Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, voted against the bill. She said while she sympathizes with the Henson family, the bill creates a delineation of what drivers can and cannot do. The bill says what drivers can do with their phones, but not whether they can change a CD or hand something to a child in the backseat, she said. "The assumption is that everything that isn’t listed is allowed," she said.

Henson said she believes the law should step in when it comes to saving lives. Similar to laws for seatbelts and against drunk driving, people won’t be responsible unless they’re forced to be, she says.

Utah’s current law bans texting for all drivers, but only bans the use of handheld devices (for activities like playing games, taking a video or reading or sending emails) for drivers ages 16-18. amcdonald@sltrib.com

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Twitter: @amymcdonald89

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