Proposed Utah ban on cellphone use while driving clears first hurdle but has a long road ahead

Groundhog Day was last Sunday. But a Utah legislative hearing Friday had the same sort of déjà vu all over again feel as the movie with that name.

It was the annual hearing on a bill to more clearly ban the hand-held use of cellphones while driving. Like last year, the House Law Enforcement Committee advanced HB101 to the full House for consideration, this time on a 6-2 vote.

Its sponsor, Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, said she hopes she made enough changes this time to finally break through and pass it after years of trying. She also has more formal support this time from law enforcement, insurance companies, prosecutors and even motorcycle groups.

“Everyone has a story about an incident when they’ve been driving and they’ve nearly been hit by someone who’s holding a cellphone,” she told the committee, adding that polls show three of every four Utahns support her bill. But conservative lawmakers have blocked it for years, arguing it interferes with personal freedom or really won’t change behavior.

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, on March 3, 2016.

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 drivers they see texting, they often claim to have been merely dialing a phone number — complicating whether they may issue a ticket if no other moving violation has been committed.

Witnesses told horror stories Friday about what they see on Utah’s roads.

Unified Fire Authority Division Chief Jay Torgersen said that on his drive to the hearing, “I passed 12 drivers that either had the phone in their hand to their ear or were obviously manipulating it.” He adds his paramedics must treat victims of car crashes, so his agency supports the bill to help change behavior.

Greg Douglas, with American Bikers Aiming Towards Education, said when he rode up to a hearing last year, he counted 30 drivers using cellphones. The last one “was a semi, a fuel-hauler. Roads are slushy in his lane, and he’s texting on his phone. We’re here to ask you to save lives, that’s it.”

Janet Hemming of Salt Lake City told how a cellphone-distracted driver hit her last year. She “sped through a red light, struck my car twice and drove my car head-on into a UTA bus. I suffered a broken sternum, fractured ribs and a sprained ankle. Along with other bruises and physical problems, I went through excruciating pain for months.”

Col. Michael Rapich, superintendent of the Utah Highway Patrol, said he recently saw a car weaving so wildly and going 15 mph under the speed limit on Interstate 80 that he was sure it must be a drunken driver.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Utah Highway Patrol Col. Michael Rapich on Jan. 17, 2019.

“I pulled up alongside the vehicle and the driver is sitting there, he’s got both hands on his cellphone,” Rapich said. He adds that virtually every law enforcement officer has stories about cellphone abuse while driving, and how hard it is to write tickets under the current law — so his agency also supports the bill.

Not everyone supported the bill. George Chapman, a citizen watchdog, argued that people will simply ignore the proposed law — so passing it will increase disrespect of the law among children who watch their parents break it.

Moss said she changed the bill to avoid some arguments that killed it in the full House last year.

She reduced 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 Bluetooth connections through car entertainment systems.

But like the movie Groundhog Day, changes have been made before and parades of witnesses have testified about dangers from distracted driving with cellphones. And the bill has been repeatedly shot down in the end

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, explained a reason during full House 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.