Senators advance ban on hand-held cellphone use while driving

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo) People hold cellphones while driving in the Salt Lake Valley in early 2019. The Legislature is considering a bill to make it easier to enforce bans on hand-held phone use.

A bill to make it easier to enforce laws that ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving rounded its last curve Monday, and now is headed for debate before the full Senate.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted 5-1 to advance HB101 to the full Senate.

Rep. Carol Moss, R-Holladay, has pushed it unsuccessfully for years against arguments that it will do little to change behavior or that it infringes too much on personal freedom — but finally pushed it through a heretofore recalcitrant House on an earlier 40-32 vote.

This year she rounded up more formal support from the Utah Highway Patrol, police chiefs, sheriffs, school bus drivers, insurance companies, prosecutors and even motorcycle groups.

She also 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.

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.

“This bill will save lives. That’s why I stayed with it this many years,” Moss said about her long push for the bill. “When we’re driving 70 mph, we need both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road.”