Stricter Utah ban on hand-held phones while driving nears final OK

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

After 40 minutes of emotional debate Wednesday, the Utah Senate voted 19-8 to give initial approval to HB101 to make it easier to enforce laws that ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving.

One more vote is needed — which usually occurs with little or no debate — for expected final approval by the Legislature. However, the bill currently is on hold until funding is found for the estimated net $70,800 the bill is estimated to cost for increased court costs. Similar bills have been rejected for years.

On Wednesday, opponents said the bill may actually make roads more hazardous as texters and talkers try to hide their phones while driving — or complained that the bill doesn’t ban driving while holding other distracting objects like hamburgers.

But several supporters told how drivers distracted by phones killed or injured their friends or family members, and it is now time to stop it.

“The reality is it is emotional if you’re the family being impacted by a distracted driver with a phone who puts your 10-year-old in a hospital with six broken ribs and six fractured vertebrae. That happened to me in 2014,” said Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City.

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said he opposed such bills for years as too limiting, until his longtime friends Dave and Leslee Henson were hit during a walk.

“A 57-year-old woman, while using her cellphone, went up over the curb and hit both of them and killed Dave and critically injured Leslee,” he said. Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, the Senate sponsor of the bill and another friend of the Hensons, scheduled debate to fall on the seventh anniversary of Dave Henson’s death.

Bramble pointed to opponents argument that using hand-held phones while driving should not be illegal unless it causes a crash, injury or other driving violation.

With such rationale, Bramble said “if there is no accident, if there is no injury, we shouldn’t have to worry about stop signs … speed limits or any other rules of the road.”

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said, “The argument is made: This is a free country and you ought to be free to do what you want. And I say that may be true, but I don’t want you in a car coming towards me at 70 miles an hour playing with your cellphone.”

But Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, strongly opposed the bill.

“This law will create more accidents because people are not going to stop utilizing their phone, especially for legitimate reasons like trying to follow a GPS and pick up their kids,” but instead will try to hide the use by holding the phone low and taking their eyes off the road more, he said.

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton agreed. “I think there are very few bill up here that actually make the roads less safe. And this is one of them.”

Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, asked why the bill didn’t ban holding other things while driving, such as hamburgers.

Anderegg said the bill may not make it any easier to enforce existing bans on using phones while driving, and said that may be impossible without cameras in cars. Instead of holding up a phone, he said he could argue he was just scratching his ear — and it would be his word against that of a police officer.

“I think you’re stretching now,” Ipson said.

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 are 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.

The bill will still allow hands-free use of phones, but not holding them while a car is in motion.

Rep. Carol Moss, R-Holladay, has pushed it unsuccessfully for years — but got it through a heretofore resistant 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.

“This bill will save lives. That’s why I stayed with it this many years,” Moss told a Senate committee earlier this week. “When we’re driving 70 mph, we need both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road.”