Ban on hand-held cellphone use by drivers finally headed to a floor debate after years of failed attempts

(Steve Griffin | Tribune File Photo) A driver talks on her cell phone while driving near the University of Utah Friday January 23, 2009.

After years of failed attempts, a bill to more clearly ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving finally managed to get out of a House committee on Wednesday.

Polls show that three of every four Utahns support the move, but some lawmakers had blocked it in committee for years saying it infringes too much on personal freedom.

“People say it’s my car and my right,” said Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, sponsor of the bill. “But their action — that may very well produce an accident or fatality — affects other people.”

The House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee endorsed it unanimously, despite its seemingly bad omen of a number this year — HB13. It now goes to the full House.

Moss managed to change which committee considered it this year. Previously, the House Transportation Committee heard and killed it every year. Moss said it had several members who “were more libertarian types [who] don’t want government regulation.”

The friendlier law enforcement committee is even led by a Utah Highway Patrol officer, Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry.

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.

“People didn’t think it was against the law, because no one was ever cited,” Moss said.

Her bill would allow police to cite drivers directly for violation, and makes it easier to enforce. Essentially, it outlaws holding a phone in the hand while driving. The only manipulation it allows is one touch or swipe.

“Law enforcement can see it, just like they can see if someone is wearing a seatbelt. It took a long time to make that a primary offense, but it has saved thousands of lives,” Moss said.

“It’s a shame we need this legislation. We should all know better,” said Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan. He said every time he sees a car swerving on the road, when he pulls up close “they always have a cellphone” to their ear.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People hand hold cell phones while driving in the Salt Lake Valley in early 2019. The Legislature is considering a bill banning hand held phone use.

“In California, you don’t see it because they know it’s against the law” and it is enforced, he said.

Greg Douglas, a motorcyclist, testified that he counted 32 people holding cellphones as he rode through Utah County on his way to the hearing Wednesday, including one driving a big-rig fuel truck. “I quit counting after that. My objective was to get the hell out of there.”

“Everybody has a story,” Moss said.

Only one witness opposed the bill. George Chapman, a former Salt Lake City mayoral candidate, said it would encourage disrespect for the law. He figures mothers will continue to answer phones while driving in front of their children, so they will figure breaking the law is OK.

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.