Utah lawmaker hopes her proposal to let cops pull over drivers for using cellphones won’t get killed this year

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) A driver uses his cellphone while driving on Interstate 15 Thursday, July 13, 2017.

Bountiful Police Chief Tom Ross told legislators Wednesday he likes to look around at intersections because he nearly always sees them: “several [drivers] doing something on their cellphone.”

He says the state’s police chiefs agree that “distracted driving is such a big problem on our roadways … we feel strongly there has got to be some action taken to reduce this.”

The comments came as Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, on Wednesday relaunched her effort to more clearly ban holding cellphones while driving. It would still allow hands-free devices. Similar bills have repeatedly died in recent years, even though polls show strong support for the idea.

Moss said Wednesday that she has higher hopes now because a different committee is assigned to consider her bill instead of the House Transportation Committee, which killed it repeatedly.

On Wednesday, the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee discussed the bill to give Moss feedback. It took no vote, but seemed generally favorable.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, was the only member to directly oppose it, and he quickly ran into push-back from members and others who testified.

“I see people every single day who are capable of using a phone while operating a motor vehicle without committing a moving violation,” he said explaining why the bill troubles him.

Current law technically outlaws hand-held cellphone use while driving — but does not allow police to pull over drivers just for that. They may be stopped only if they commit some other moving violation. Thatcher said such an approach is appropriate — ticketing only when cellphone use causes problems.

Rep. Ed Redd, R-Logan, disagreed, making a comparison to people who argue they are able to safely drive a vehicle after drinking, even if they have a blood-alcohol content greater than the currently allowed .08 level (which is going to .05 on Dec. 30).

He said the risk to others from such drivers can’t be ignored.

But Thatcher noted that drunken drivers may only be stopped and given sobriety tests when they are seen acting erratically as a sign of impairment — and said the same should apply to cellphone users.

Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, a Highway Patrol lieutenant, however, noted that someone just sitting in the driver’s seat of a parked car can be ticketed and convicted of DUI based on their blood-alcohol content — again for the risk they pose.

Capt. Layne Hilton of the Unified FireAuthority also said, “Police are given authority to pull somebody over if they are speeding whether they are operating safely or not. There’s a reason for that. It’s because we know speeding causes accidents.”

He added, “We have also found readily, quickly and sadly that distracted driving — and particularly cellphone use — causes accidents…. When you see someone driving erratically on the freeway … what do you say? Get off your cellphone.”

Phil Dyer, representing the Utah Association of Justice, said data suggest that drivers who use cellphones while driving “are an accident waiting to happen.”

The most recent data available from the Utah Department of Public Safety show 5,748 distracted-driving incidents in 2016, resulting in 3,303 injuries and 27 deaths, Moss said. Cellphone use was listed as a major cause of distraction in at least 15 percent of all crashes.

Twelve of the 15 states that have hand-held cellphone bans for driivers experienced a decrease in fatalities within two years after their laws passed — and six saw decreases of greater than 20 percent, Moss said.

Her bill has been criticized in part because while studies at the University of Utah show that cellphone use while driving can be as dangerous as drunken driving, they show that hands-free use is just as dangerous as hand-held use.

Moss has said banning all cellphone use has virtually no chance of passage, but at least banning hand-held use results “in having two hands on the wheel and two eyes on the road.”