As Utah motorcycle deaths rise, cycle groups call for better ban on drivers using hand-held cellphones

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photos) People hand hold cell phones while driving in the Salt Lake Valley in early 2019. The Legislature is considering a bill to more clearly ban hand-held phone use, and motorcyclists rallied Thursday for its passage.

Motorcycle groups revved up a call Thursday for something they say might have saved several of the record 48 riders who died on Utah highways last year: a better ban on the use of hand-held cellphones while driving.

“Every time I ride my motorcycle, I always have to worry that there’s people right next to me, or in front or behind me, that are texting” or talking on cellphones, said Elvecia Ramos, founder of The Riderz Foundation, at a state Capitol news conference. “It drives me crazy.”

She’s not alone.

“We’re getting hit by people who are on their phones. We’re all getting hit by left-hand turns” by drivers without peripheral vision because their phones block it, said Annette Ault, Utah chapter president of American Bikers Aiming Toward Education.

“And we don’t have any protection,” said Terry Marasco, legislative and policy analyst for The Riderz Foundation. 8“We don’t have any air bags. We don’t have any seat belts.”

“And we don’t have any metal around us,” Ault added.

So they are calling for passage of HB101 by Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, to create a better ban.

Hand-held use of cellphones while driving has technically been illegal in Utah since 2007. But it can only be enforced if another moving traffic violation is committed at the same time, such as speeding. So few tickets are ever written.

It also complicates the enforcement of laws that have banned texting while driving since 2009. Police report that when they pull over people they see texting, they often claim to have been merely dialing a phone number — complicating whether they may issue a ticket if they committed no other moving violation.

Moss has tried — and failed — for years to allow direct citations for talking-on-the-phone violations. Republican majorities have repeatedly torpedoed it by arguing that it interferes with personal choice, or that cellphones are no more dangerous than many other distractions, or that it won’t change behavior.

For example, Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, said in debate last year, “I don’t like a bill that has to spell out everything that is forbidden …. I don’t want to live in a society where that is the standard,” and said most people know it is not smart to phone and drive.

The House killed the bill on a 31-41 vote last year, ironically just after it voted for another bill to allow running red lights in some circumstances.

Moss again is optimistic that this could finally be the year that her bill passes.

“The public wants this to happen,” she said in an interview, and pointed to a Salt Lake Tribune poll last year that showed people support a tougher ban by a 75-23 margin. “People see this behavior every day, and everyone has stories about how they were nearly hit or killed.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, in the House Chamber on Dec. 12, 2019.

Moss said she has stronger support lined up this year — besides from the upset motorcyclists.

“There will be a concerted effort on the part of law enforcement to really push this with their own legislators and constituents,” she said.

Moss said Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, also volunteered to help push the bill with his GOP colleagues as an informal co-sponsor, and she hopes he may help especially with fellow freshmen to overcome past opposition from GOP leaders.

Moss said she also changed the bill to reduce penalties that many Republicans said were too harsh. The first offense would now be an infraction, similar to most other traffic violations, rather than the earlier proposed Class C misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $750 fine.

She said she will also stress that her bill will still allow talking on the phone while driving — by using speaker phones or funneling sound through entertainment systems.

Motorcyclists say until the bill passes, they constantly are threatened by incidents such as one described by Ault.

“A lady on the freeway was on the phone. She suddenly came into my lane. I had nowhere to go but under a semi,” although the driver pulled back out of the lane just in time — but then weaved over again.

Ault said another motorcyclist with her yelled at the driver to get off her phone.

“She had her phone in her left hand, and took the other hand off the wheel — and flipped him off.”