State Rep. Carol Moss was leery of the big pickup truck ahead of her as she cruised on Interstate 215 a few months ago. It was drifting back and forth from its lane into hers — then she saw the driver holding a cellphone to his ear.
“So I backed off a bit, and just then he slid over all the way in front of me — no signal, nothing,” cutting her off and slowing while cars boxed in Moss on both sides. “I laid on the horn and braked. It was nearly a horrible accident. He just looked back at me like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’”
Moss adds, “I see near misses all the time because of people talking on their phones and driving. Everybody has a story: It’s the car sitting at a light that changes and doesn’t move until you honk, or it’s the person weaving back and forth.”
So the Holladay Democrat drafted HB64 that seeks to fully outlaw using hand-held electronic devices while driving, but would permit using hands-free technology.
She and others figure the bill will face a battle from those who don’t want to give up phones while driving. Also, national safety groups oppose such bills, saying they may worsen road safety by leading people to mistakenly believe that talking while driving with a hands-free device is safe, when studies show it is as just as dangerous as using a hand-held phone.
Moss and others have introduced similar bills in the past, but they have largely crashed amid arguments that they undercut individual rights.
Lawmakers have passed piecemeal legislation. Utah has banned all texting (and any manipulation of phones by hand) while in motion and driving; outlawed all cellphone use by drivers under age 18; and technically banned hand-held phone use by all drivers, but only allowing enforcement if another moving violation (besides speeding) occurs.
Moss says the time has arrived for a full and clear ban in Utah — which 14 other states have enacted. “More people complain to me about that than anything.” She also notes that statistics show cellphone use by drivers is fueling increasing fatalities and accidents.
Utah suffered 5,748 distracted-driver crashes in 2016 with 3,303 injuries and 27 deaths, according to the Utah Highway Safety Office. It says about 9 percent of all crashes in Utah over the past decade has involved a distracted driver.
But Utah Department of Transportation spokesman John Gleason says it is tough to figure how many of those distracted-driving problems came from cellphone use — and how many resulted from such other things as eating, reading or watching kids in the back seat while driving. Police often do not or cannot separate such causes into distinct categories.
The Highway Safety Office says 41 percent of distracted driving crashes do not list the exact cause. But cellphone use was clearly identified in 15 percent of all distracted-driving accidents in 2016.
So the safety office notes in its 2016 report, “While these numbers are significant, they may not state the true size of the problem, since the identification of distraction and its role in the crash by law enforcement can be very difficult.”
The safety office also advises that distracted driving, especially from cellphone use, is an increasing problem.
It noted that, in 2007, Utah passed a law banning hand-held phone use while driving that could be enforced only if another traffic violation besides speeding was committed. Amid publicity about that, crashes involving cellphones decreased for the next three years.
But as that publicity faded, crashes involving drivers on cellphones have increased for six straight years since then, according to the safety office.
“Those statistics were a real eye-opener for me,” Moss says, and show the need for a ban.
However, some fear that the proposed bill could actually worsen road safety.
Among them is David Strayer at the University of Utah. His research attracted international attention by showing that phone use while driving is as dangerous as drunken driving.
But his research also showed that hands-free talking is just as distracting as using hand-held devices, and that many electronic gadgets now in cars are as bad or worse than phones in diverting driver attention from the road.
Moss’ bill to allow hands-free devices but ban hand-held phones “is making a distinction between two types of activities that have equal risks. It might actually send a message that one is safer than the other, which it isn’t,” Strayer warns.
Moss says, however, “I would maintain that if you have two hands on the wheel and two eyes on the road, you are a much safer driver than holding the wheel with one hand and holding a phone up to your ear.”
While banning all cellphone use might be even safer, Moss says, she doesn’t see that as possible politically. “That would be a stretch at this point to get people not to talk on their phones.”
However, marshaling support for a ban on hand-held devices behind the wheel might be possible, she says. “It would be an incremental step in the right direction.”
Rolayne Fairclough, a traffic safety advocate who was a longtime lobbyist for the AAA travel services company in Utah, agrees with Moss.
“It would be nice if people completely disengaged from all electronics when they are driving, but this is still is a really good idea because you can have your hands free to do what they need to do,” she says. “It is a good start for distracted-driving laws.”
Strayer says such a bill indeed might have a positive unintended consequence by perhaps reducing more overall cellphone use by drivers — and suggests that it might be tweaked more to target all distracting uses of them and electronic gadgets in cars rather than just voice communication.
“What we worry about is just not looking where you are going,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter if you are texting, dialing a number or watching a movie, if you’re not looking where you are going, you increase the risk of a crash.”
Strayer says while some people still talk on phones while driving, a bigger problem is they are “sorting through their music, or looking at an email and texting…. Talking on a cellphone is a problem. But it’s kind of yesterday’s problem. It’s all the new stuff that’s coming with a smartphone that is making them much more dangerous.”
Among lawmakers who see a potentially tough fight for the bill is Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi. A few years ago, he argued Utah had gone too far in a law that had banned all physical manipulation of phones while driving, and he tried to amend it to allow such things as one-button use for Siri or other voice commands, or use of traffic apps.
Anderegg ended up pulling the bill when it was amended to ban such things as a driver ever putting a phone to the ear.
He says Moss’ bill would probably have stiff opposition, noting that many people — from real-estate agents to sales people and other professionals — depend on phones for business while traveling and will resist a total ban.
Anderegg says the measure would also be tough to enforce. “It leaves a lot of discretion to police officers,” and could result in arguments about whether drivers were actually handling a phone or something else. “It would be tough to prove.”
Strayer similarly adds, “If a bill is not enforced, you might was well not write it because people will just not pay attention to it.”
Anderegg says he understands Moss wants to make highways safer, and acknowledges that traffic statistics show problems with distracted driving. But he also believes that technology may soon make bills such as HB64 moot.
“I don’t think you can buy [a new car] that doesn’t have hands-free technology in it,” he says. “I think we are headed that way naturally. But I don’t know that it’s ubiquitous enough yet to make that transition” without a big fight.
Moss says while she expects a battle, she also believes public support for the idea is stronger than ever. “It’s the thing I hear about the most from constituents. They are tired of people talking on the phone when they drive. They ask me why there isn’t a law to stop it.”