Utah lawmakers again rejected a ban on using phones while driving

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

Senate and House majorities voted for it this year. Three of every four Utahns favor it in polls. The Utah Highway Patrol, police chiefs, sheriffs, school bus drivers, insurance companies, prosecutors and even motorcycle groups lobbied hard for it.

But in the end, a bill to enact a stricter ban on hand-held cellphones while driving died anyway at the Utah Legislature — as it has for years. But unlike past legislative sessions when it often did not even make it out of committee, it came within a whisker of passing this time.

Republicans and Democrats have different versions of why it died.

Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, sponsor of HB101, said, “Why did it fail? I can answer with two words: Republican leadership.”

Democrats say House GOP leaders — who had all voted against it — blocked a final procedural vote needed to pass it on the last day of the general session.

But House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, says allowing the final vote likely would have eaten up plenty of debate time as he was rushing to push as many House-passed bills through the Senate as possible before the session had to end at midnight. So he forwarded other bills instead.

In reality, the House slowed down to such a degree that they broke to “saunter” or suspend official business from about 9 p.m. to 9:40 p.m. And Rep. Robert Spendlove deliberately ran down the clock on a bill about multicounty tax assessments and collections in the last hour before midnight adjournment — at one point trying to list off all Utah’s counties from memory — before the measure passed unanimously with no debate.

Moss says she keeps pushing the bill because she constantly hears from voters about accidents caused by drivers using hand-held phones. This year, she lined up more formal support from law enforcement, prosecutors, insurance companies and the Utah Department of Transportation — who all testified for it.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, on Feb. 27, 2020.

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 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 — making it problematic to issue a ticket if no other moving violation has been committed.

HB101 would have allowed hands-free use of phones, but not holding them while a car is in motion.

Moss this year also reduced proposed penalties that many Republicans said were too harsh. Under HB101, the first offense would 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.

With that, her bill for the first time ever passed the House, on a 40-32 vote — despite critics who said it will not change behavior, or will infringe on personal freedom. Shortly afterward, it passed the Senate on a 19-8 preliminary vote.

Then it hit a snag. It had a “fiscal note” estimating that passage would cost the state an extra $70,000 from increased court costs. Moss argues that was mistaken, and that any increase in tickets would bring fines to cover court costs. But rules do not allow final passage of a bill with a fiscal note until an appropriation bill moves to cover those added costs.

So HB101 sat for more than a week in the Senate without that final vote.

The fiscal note problem was solved in the final week of the session when an appropriations bill included money for it. By that time, House leaders controlled which House-passed bills would be considered in the Senate as the session end loomed.

House Democratic leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said Democrats told GOP leaders that Moss’ bill was one of the minority party’s top two priorities for consideration. The other was a bill by retiring Rep. Patrice Arent to end straight-ticket voting.

He said that Schultz, the GOP whip, refused to move bill either bill initially, and sent along other Democratic-sponsored bills instead.

“Schultz told me that there were people on the leadership team on the House Republican side who hated that [cellphone] bill,” King said. He notes that Schultz, House Speaker Brad Wilson, Majority Leader Francis Gibson and Assistant Whip Val Peterson all voted against it.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Utah House Minority Leader Brian King on March 1, 2018.

“More than anything else, that was what was going on,” King said. “There were just decisions made at the highest levels that they were not going to let that bill loose to be passed.”

Moss said groups supporting the bill tried to lobby Schultz and others to allow a vote — and she even took a woman whose husband was killed by a driver who had been texting to make an appeal. She says Schultz told them, “There’s just not a lot of support on this side for the bill.”

Schultz said in an interview that he was pressured by dozens of lawmakers of both parties to move forward scores of bills in the final days — at one point he even had 183 unread texts on the last day — and had to figure how best to get as many bills through the Senate as possible.

“That [cellphone] bill didn’t have a lot of support as it came out of the House. It would have taken up a lot of time debating that bill back and forth” as time was short, he said.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Rep. Rep Mike Schultz talks to the media after being selected to serve as Majority Whip on Nov. 8, 2018.

Moss disputes that. She notes the bill had already passed by better than a 2-1 margin on a preliminary vote in the Senate, and said Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, the Senate sponsor of the bill, told her he had the votes to pass it if she could get it on the calendar.

Schultz said the decision not to move the cellphone bill was not based on his or other leaders’ personal votes against it. He notes he managed to get the Democrats’ other top-priority bill — Arent’s ban on straight-ticket voting — through at the last minute, and he and other GOP leaders had also voted against it.

King said Arent’s bill moved in part because she is retiring, had pushed her bill for years, and Democrats made an appeal to let that be a crowning achievement of her career. King also noted in negotiations that a majority of House Republicans had voted for her bill.

“It’s a study in contrasts,” King said. “Even though both bills had strong bipartisan support, sometimes politics trumps.”

Moss said she also appealed to Schultz to let her bill pass “to make my year and make my career,” but she isn’t retiring and it didn’t work. “The whole system to me is crazy," she said. "I did everything you’re supposed to do. And then it just didn’t matter. It’s just so frustrating”

Moss said she will likely try her bill again next year — and says that just pushing the issue every session may be helping improve behavior on the road.

“I think people are changing their habits. By just hearing about the bill, a lot of people think it passed,” she said. “I think more people are just concluding, ‘Hey, I can’t drive and hold the phone.’ I hope people are voluntarily making the change to do the right thing.”