As Utah’s tough DUI law takes effect to improve highway safety, uphill fight seen for banning hand-held cellphones while driving

Opponents of Utah’s new toughest-in-the-nation drunken driving law often argue that if legislators are so concerned about reducing highway deaths, why don’t they more clearly outlaw hand-held cellphones while driving?

Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, who has unsuccessfully pushed such a ban, says the argument seems to be drawing more attention and public support to her legislation but doesn’t have much traction among her lawmaker colleagues.

“I hate to make that case in the House,” she said, explaining that it tends only to upset and stiffen the resolve of those lawmakers who argue a hand-held cellphone ban is a questionable infringement on personal rights — but toughening DUI laws is not.

So while the new DUI law took effect Sunday — lowering the blood alcohol content at which drivers are presumed drunk from 0.08 to 0.05 — Moss doesn’t plan to use it to try help her bill but will focus on other safety arguments instead.

She is pushing a streamlined version of it now — which she says is attracting more solid support from law enforcement — and feels it finally may pass.

But there is one bad omen: the bill’s number, HB13.

“I don’t know if No. 13 is good or not,” she said. “I just want to say I’m not superstitious.”

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Rep. Carol Spackman-Moss, D-Salt Lake, checks the progress of the voting on a hostile amendment put forth by Rep. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, in the Utah House of Representatives, Thursday, March 3, 2016. Her bill - HB221 - Immunization of Students Amendments - was eventually circled to give her time to deal with the hostile amendments. An added difficulty for Spackman-Moss was having to present her bill in the midst of the hubbub caused when the BYU and Utah football coaches visited the floor as she was presenting.

She lists many reasons why it may have better chances of passing this year.

“This is the No. 1 thing that people talk to me about,” she says. “They all have a story about an accident or a close call. It’s just one of the things that infuriate people the most.”

She adds, “The public supports this bill.” A poll in early 2018 by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics showed Utahns back such a ban by a vast 75 percent to 23 percent margin.

Actually, Moss believes a majority of the House probably would vote for her bill — but it never makes it that far. The House Transportation Committee kills it before it ever reaches the floor. Last year, the committee rejected the proposal on a 3-5 vote.

The committee has a majority of members "who don’t like any regulation,” Moss says, and see her bill as an infringement on personal rights.

In the past, she unsuccessfully tried to have it assigned to the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee — which is led by a Utah Highway Patrol officer, Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry.

It finally was routed this summer for study — and was endorsed — by the Legislature’s Interim Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee. She hopes the friendlier law enforcement committees in the House and Senate will retain oversight during the upcoming general session.

Meanwhile, Moss notes that controversy over the DUI law does have another tie to her bill because studies by psychologist David Strayer at the University of Utah “say talking on a cellphone is just as dangerous as drunken driving.”

However, Strayer’s research has also shown that hands-free cellphone use while driving is just as dangerous as using hand-held devices — and has said Moss’ bill “might actually send a message that one is safer than the other, which it isn’t.”

Courtesy | AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety On behalf of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer has conducted new research into the effects of mental distractions on a personÕs ability to drive safely. In two new studies, Strayer and colleagues found the giving voice commands to almost all smartphone personal assistants and in-vehicle infotainment systems is highly distracting, and that it takes drivers up to 27 seconds to regain full attention after using the devices.

But Moss says, “My bill means you would have two hands on the wheel and two eyes on the road, which is safer than holding the wheel with one hand and holding a phone up to your ear. The peripheral vision isn’t as good, and their distraction is high.”

Moss said she also simplified her bill this year. “It basically says you can answer your phone with one tap,” and use it hands-free otherwise. “You can use Siri.”

Also, “The law-enforcement community wasn’t all-in last year. They were lukewarm. I was disappointed that their testimony wasn’t real strong.” Moss said she met with their associations this summer to build support and line up strong testimony.

Hand-held use of a cellphone while driving in Utah already technically is illegal — but can be enforced only if another traffic violation besides speeding is committed.

Moss notes that amid publicity after that law passed in 2007, crashes involving cellphones decreased for the next three years. But over time with virtually no enforcement, she said data show crashes increased for six straight years since then.

Data from the Utah Highway Safety Office said that in 2016, the most recent year for available data, 940 crashes clearly involving cellphones or texting occurred, up from 815 in 2015, 801 in 2014 and 755 in 2013.

But Moss, the safety office and the Utah Department of Transportation have said police often do not separate in records which distracted-driving accidents involve cellphones as a direct cause.

The safety office said that the number of reported cellphone-related accidents “may not state the true size of the problem, since the identification of a distraction and its role in the crash by law enforcement can be very difficult.”

Moss said one of the hurdles for her cellphone-ban bills has been whether data show cellphone use is a significant problem. “Some use anything to oppose the bill,” she said.