Three of every four Utah voters want a clear ban on using hand-held cellphones while driving. But it’s a case of “can you hear me now,” as an old cellphone ad asked, as state legislators have constantly turned a deaf ear to arguments for such a law in recent years.
Utahns overwhelmingly support such a ban by a 76-22 percent margin, with just 2 percent undecided, according to a new poll by The Salt Lake Tribune and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
That mirrors a similar poll last year, which showed the ban then had support by a nearly identical 75-23 percent margin. Still, a House committee voted it down quickly last year, as some conservative members argued that it undercuts individual rights.
The new poll shows that support for the ban cuts across party lines among voters. Republicans favor it by a margin of 72-26; Democrats, 87-11; and unaffiliated voters, 76-22.
Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, is pushing a reworked version of the bill again this year, now called HB13.
“I’m really excited by those [new poll] numbers,” she said. “This could finally be the year. The public clearly supports this."
She said there are several other reasons to be hopeful, too.
“We simplified the bill,” she said. “We made it less complicated and easier to enforce. It allows one touch, one tap or one swipe” to answer or use a cellphone, but otherwise requires hands-free operation. So if someone has a phone held up to an ear, it’s a clear, easily enforceable violation. It allows exceptions in emergencies.
With such a change, she said she has the enthusiastic backing of numerous law enforcement associations that will testify for it.
Also, because about a quarter of legislators this year are new to Capitol Hill, Moss says there is an opportunity to look at the issue with fresh eyes.
In past years, the House Transportation Committee voted down the bill, but Moss hopes the bill this year will be assigned to the likely friendlier House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee (which is chaired by Rep. Lee Perry, a Highway Patrol officer).
“Several members of the other committee were more libertarian types that don’t want government regulation,” Moss said.
Hand-held use of a cellphone while driving in Utah already is technically illegal — but it can be enforced only if another traffic violation — besides speeding — is committed. Texting while driving also is already outlawed.
“People reach out to me all the time on this issue,” Moss said. “Everybody has a story. You see this every day on the roads, and I hear all the time about people who were seriously injured or killed because of it.”
Some respondents to the new poll agree that the problem is widespread and the time has come to attack it.
Teresa Alexander said she received a call from The Tribune about the poll question while she was driving, but just let it go to voicemail — and wishes more people would do that.
“When I’m held up in traffic because someone missed a red-light change, I look and it’s because they are busy on their phone,” she said. “It’s everywhere. It’s constant. It’s dangerous.”
Tamra Aposhian admitted she has talked on a phone while driving, but also says it’s dangerous and should be banned. “I see the potential problems. People should pay attention.”
Others say they don’t see cellphones as more dangerous than other driving distractions from eating to talking to passengers.
“Just having someone hold the phone in their hand — I don’t know how that is any more more distracting than drinking a drink,” said Tiffany Sowey.
“Doing a complete ban just takes away from those circumstances where you need a conversation and are saying, ‘I’m on my way,’ or ‘which house is yours?' ” she said.
Susan Manning sees the proposed ban as “a little too strict. I prefer [it] to be a little more libertarian” and allow people to make choices within reason.
University of Utah studies have found that using cellphones while driving is as dangerous as drunken driving — a hazard that Utah lawmakers aggressively took on with the recently imposed law that is the toughest in the nation. It dropped the legal blood alcohol level from 0.08 to 0.05.
The U. studies, however, have concluded that hands-free cellphone use while driving is just as distracting as hand-held use.
Moss argues her bill at least means drivers would have two hands and two eyes on the road, and believes that would improve safety.
The new poll interviewed 604 registered voters between Jan. 15-24. It has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.