Citing concerns that it may infringe on personal liberty or simply be ineffective, lawmakers slammed the brakes Friday on a bill to clearly ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving.
HB64 died on a 3-5 vote in the House Transportation Committee.
That occurred despite a long line of groups testifying in support: the Utah Highway Patrol, the Utah Safety Office, the Utah PTA and car insurance companies. Also a new poll by The Salt Lake Tribune and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of politics found that three of every four Utahns favor the bill.
But not enough lawmakers do.
“It’s a difficult balance to strike between public safety and personal rights and liberties,” said Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, who voted against the bill.
To such arguments, Elissa Schee of Cottonwood Heights, held up a photo of a fiery Florida school bus crash caused by a semi truck driver who was talking on a hand-held phone — which killed her daughter Margay in 2008.
“I hear a lot of people talk about their rights in their motor vehicles,” she said. “I would like to know where my daughter’s rights are.”
Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, sponsor of the bill, noted that use of hand-held phones while driving in Utah already is illegal. But current law allows enforcement only if another moving violation (besides speeding) occurs — so she says the ban usually is ignored because it simply is not enforced.
Michael Rapich, superintendent of the Utah Highway Patrol, said the bill could make streets safer and even make it easier to enforce bans on texting — which now require an officer to see from afar texts on screens or drivers actually typing on a phone.
Under HB64, “If you have your phone in your hand, regardless what you are doing with it, you would be in violation” of the law and could be cited directly for that, he said.
Moss noted that in 2016, Utah records show that distracted driving caused 5,748 crashes here with 3,303 injuries and 27 deaths.
“That’s almost as many as [the number of] people who died as a result of being hit by drunk drivers,” she said. “Here in Utah we now have the toughest DUI law in the country, yet our cellphone laws do not match that.”
She noted that studies at the University of Utah found that using a cellphone while driving is as dangerous as drunken driving. But some committee members noted that studies there also found that hand-held cellphones are just as dangerous while driving as hands-free because they take drivers’ minds off of the road.
Moss said she was attempting an incremental step that would at least allow two hands on the wheel plus two eyes on the road.
“In an ideal world, we just pass a law that says you can’t talk on your phone while you’re driving,” she said. “But I don’t think that would ever pass.”
She said she pushed the bill because problems with drivers with cellphones is the top complaint she hears from residents.
“So many people have a story of being nearly hit, people drifting in front of them, accelerating through stop signs … and you can see a phone being held up to one ear” by people doing that, she said.