Three of every four Utahns apparently would like to send a message to people who use cellphones while driving: Hang up, already.
A new poll commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics shows that by a 75-23 margin, Utahns support HB64 by Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay — legislation that would clearly ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving. It would still allow use of hands-free devices.
Support cuts across party lines. Republicans back it by a 75-25 margin, Democrats by 69-29 and unaffiliated voters by 80-18.
“I’m pleased. I don’t see it as a partisan issue. It’s a public safety issue,” Moss said. “Republicans and Democrats alike have been angered and frustrated and probably had near misses as they are driving and see someone holding a cellphone.”
Such efforts in the past have often crashed in the Republican-dominated Legislature amid arguments that they undercut individual rights. “I think [opponents] ought to consider what their constituents want, and carefully reflect,” Moss said.
She has delayed pushing for a hearing for a bit, to give her time to lobby colleagues for support.
Beyond public support, something that may help win the argument is continuing debate about Utah’s new toughest-in-the-nation drunken driving law, which on Dec. 30 will drop the blood-alcohol content level to be considered drunk from 0.08 to 0.05. That law is expected to be tweaked this year, but remain in place.
Moss noted that studies at the University of Utah have found that driving while talking on a cellphone is just as dangerous as drunken driving.
“We have the toughest DUI law in the nation, and one of the weakest cellphone laws in the country,” she said, reasoning that the disparity doesn’t make sense.
Lawmakers have passed piecemeal legislation through the years about driving while using cellphones.
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 allows enforcement if another moving violation (besides speeding) occurs.
Rep. Dixon Pitcher, R-Ogden, has also introduced HB220 this year to ban use of hand-held cellphones while driving in a school zone.
Moss said the time has arrived for Utah to enact a full and clear ban, as 14 other states have done.
She said she’s had “hundreds and hundreds of responses” about her bill, and “I don’t think there have been even five people who have written me to oppose it. Most people say, ’You ought to make the penalties stiffer.’ ”
A potential roadblock for HB64 is that University of Utah studies have also shown that hands-free talking on cellphones is just as dangerous as holding phones to the ear, and some argue still allowing hands-free devices could send a dangerous message.
“I think that driving with two hands on the wheel is the preferred method,” Moss allowed. But she said her proposal is an improvement over current law and one that may be the best that is politically possible now.
Utah suffered 5,748 distracted-driver crashes in 2016 with 3,303 injuries and 27 deaths, according to the Utah Highway Safety Office.
The agency said about 9 percent of all crashes over the past decade involved a distracted driver. Officials have said it is difficult to determine how many of those involved cellphones, and how many were a result of other distractions, such as eating, reading or watching children in the back seat.
For the new poll, Dan Jones & Associates talked to 803 registered Utah voters from Jan. 15 to 18. The poll has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.