Utah House OKs tougher ban on hand-held cellphones while driving

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) People use hand-held cellphones while driving in the Salt Lake Valley in early 2019.

After years of hanging up on public calls for it, the Utah House finally advanced a bill Monday to make it easier to enforce laws that ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving.

Members voted 40-32 to endorse HB101 and sent it to the Senate for consideration.

“This is about changing habits. It’s not hard. You can do it,” Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, the bill’s sponsor told members — finally overcoming arguments that the bill would do little to change behavior or would interfere too much with personal freedom.

Moss pushed the bill for years, but it routinely failed — even though polls showed that three of every four Utahns favor it. This year, however, she rounded up more formal support from the Utah Highway Patrol, police chiefs, sheriffs, school bus drivers, insurance companies, prosecutors and even motorcycle groups.

Moss also 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 also stressed that her bill will still allow talking on the phone while driving — by using speaker phones or Bluetooth connections through car entertainment systems. It will also allow manipulating phones while stopped at a red light. (However, a 2013 law bans teenage drivers from talking on cellphones — hand-held or otherwise — while driving).

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

Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, said that in the years that Moss has pushed her bill, “I’ve been hit twice” by drivers who were using cellphones. Once was when she was driving a brand-new car to replace the first that was totaled.

“Where’s the line? What is our role?” she asked. “I’d like to be protected from people who are using their cellphones openly.”

But Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, was among several lawmakers who said data from states and nations that have adopted bans on hand-held phones shows that it does little or nothing to decrease accidents compared to use of hands-free devices.

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“It is the act of talking that causes you to have driving impairment,” he said.

Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, said, “The fact is, there isn’t a single scientific study that shows that hands-free versus hand-held makes any difference. So why are we doing this?

Rep. Calvin Musselman, R-West Haven, said one study says being lost in thought actually causes more accidents than cellphone use. “So are we going to outlaw thinking while we are driving?”

Moss said plenty of data exists to show that use of hand-held phones is distracting and dangerous. “If any of you don’t believe there is data, you can meet me outside later and I will be happy to show you it.”

Because that sounded a bit like an invitation to fisticuffs, House Speaker Brad Wilson broke in to say, “I’m sure that just broke a House rule or two. ... But I like it. So keep going. I think you can take them all” he told the grandmotherly Moss.

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

Rep. Val Potter, R-North Logan, rebutted largely unspoken arguments among lawmakers that the bill takes away personal freedom. “I think the most important freedom to me is freedom of life. ... Speaking of data, there’s plenty of data that shows that this is a problem. I drive a lot on the freeways. I see swerving drivers” using cellphones.

“It’s fine to use your cellphone anytime,” Potter said. “But when you drive, it becomes my problem.”

Moss said when Utah first banned use of cellphones while driving, accidents from them decreased for a few years. But it has increased ever since “because no one ever heard of anyone being stopped because it wasn’t a primary offense.”

She said a change in the law is needed to change culture.

“This bill is going to make it possible for law enforcement to enforce existing laws,” she said. “You talk to anyone in your neighborhood and your district, they will tell you they have a story — they have a near miss or an accident.”