Lawmaker again seeks stricter ban on cellphones while driving

Rep. Carol Moss says even though the bill failed last year, debate over it saved lives.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) People hold cellphones while driving in the Salt Lake Valley in early 2019. The Legislature is again considering a bill banning hand-held phone use while driving.

State Rep. Carol Moss says her push to restrict cellphone use by drivers is the one topic she hears about constantly from voters, and was even mentioned in a letter from a Utah State Prison inmate.

“He was writing mostly about prison conditions,” said the Democratic lawmaker from Holladay. “But he added at the bottom, ‘P.S. My wife stopped holding her phone when she’s driving because of your bill.’”

Comments like that made her decide to try her bill one more time — introduced this year as HB160 — even though she says just the thought of more long battles over it makes her weary.

“But I think just talking about it every year is saving lives,” she says. “I’ve even had more than a few people think that it’s already passed. They’ll say, ‘Thank you for passing that bill.’ And I say, ‘You’re welcome.’”

But it never has passed.

After many years of failing even to make it out of committee, the bill came within a whisker of enactment last year. Majorities in both the House and Senate had voted for it, finally seeming to catch up with constituents and experts.

Three of every four Utahns have favored it in polls. The Utah Highway Patrol, police chiefs, sheriffs, school bus drivers, insurance companies and even motorcycle rider groups have all testified and lobbied for it.

But House Republican leaders — who had all voted against it — refused to bring it up for a final procedural vote needed for passage on the 2020 Legislature’s last night. They argued that debate would take too much time with so many other bills on the agenda, so it died.

“The opposition is all about ‘personal liberty,’” Moss says, adding that many lawmakers tell her that they don’t think it should be the role of government to tell them whether they can use a cellphone while driving or not. And many talk on cellphones and drive.

On the other hand, “Everyone has a story about a close call,” Moss says, where some driver on a phone came close to killing them. Among those lobbying for the bill are volunteers who have lost family members because of distracted drivers. “I think I owe it to them to keep trying,” Moss said.

Hand-held use of cellphones while driving has technically been illegal in Utah since 2007. But it can be enforced only if another 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.

“Police have told me that they have even pulled over people holding up phones in front of their face to talk on Facetime [a video chat] while driving, but they couldn’t do much because they hadn’t committed any other moving violation,” Moss said.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, talks at a news conference at the Utah Capitol on Feb. 27, 2020. She will again run a bill seeking a stricter ban on hand-held cellphones while driving.

“I constantly have to remind people that it is already illegal to hold a cellphone while driving,” she adds. “We just need to give the police the tools they need to enforce it.”

She notes that while her bill bans hand-held cellphones while driving, it does allow using speakerphone options — and using one-touch options or voice commands to dial numbers.

Opponents often point out that research by the University of Utah has shown that hands-free phone conversations can be just as distracting to drivers as using a hand-held device. But Moss argues that her bill still would allow drivers to keep two eyes and two hands on the road, which she said logically must be at least somewhat safer.

Moss has taken some steps to help the bill pass, such as making the first violation only an infraction — instead of earlier versions that made it a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $750 fine that critics had said were too harsh. She said the many groups that testified and pushed for it previously are volunteering to step up again.

Last year, the bill was delayed because fiscal analysts figured it would cost the state money — and appropriations bills with a price tag had to have funding approved first. This year, fiscal analysts figure that the bill will actually increase state revenue, eliminating such problems.

She also, like last year, has a powerful Senate co-sponsor — Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, a member of Senate GOP leadership as vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and the owner of a trucking company.

Last year, Ipson arranged to hold a preliminary vote on the bill on the seventh anniversary of the death of a friend who was killed as a pedestrian by a distracted driver — and he gave an impassioned speech for it before a 19-8 vote for it there.

Also, Moss said three mores states last year passed laws restricting hand-free cellphone use while driving — Idaho, Indiana and South Dakota — now making a total of 25.

“I don’t know if it will pass or not this year. There are a lot of new faces in the Legislature, and I haven’t had time to talk to many of them,” Moss said. “But I don’t want to let down the volunteers who have worked so hard for this.”