Utah lawmakers kill bill to more clearly outlaw hand-held cellphones while driving

Opponents say stricter law would hurts personal freedom.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photos) This compilation of file photos shows people holding cellphones while driving in the Salt Lake Valley in early 2019. Lawmakers on Tuesday again killed a bill that would more clearly outlaw the use of hand-held cellphones while driving.

Amid arguments that it would infringe too much on personal liberty, a Utah legislative committee voted down a bill to more clearly outlaw the hand-held use of cellphones while driving.

Of course, supporters — including crash victims, law enforcement, paramedics and insurance companies — argued unsuccessfully that allowing distracted driving infringes even more on the rights of innocent people hurt or killed because of it.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, has pushed the bill unsuccessfully for years — and last year saw both the House and Senate vote for it, but it died as time ran out for a needed final vote. But the House Government Operation Committee killed HB160 right out of the gate on Tuesday on a 7-4 vote.

The motion to torpedo it was made by Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, the sponsor of a bill that created the nation’s toughest drunken driving law in Utah by lowering the allowed blood alcohol content from 0.08 to 0.05.

“Our cellphones have become the new alcohol,” argued Leslee Henson Rasmussen, noting that studies at the University of Utah have found that driving with a cellphone is just as dangerous as drunken driving.

Rasmussen’s husband was killed as a pedestrian by a driver who was texting. Rasmussen was walking with him and was also nearly killed, and required 5,000 stitches and staples to reattach her scalp.

“To me, it’s not a bill about taking away people’s rights. It’s a bill addressing one thing only, and that is public safety,” Rasmussen said. “There’s a time and a place for cellphones and using them while driving is not one of those places.”

But Rep. Michael Petersen, R-North Logan, noted that state statistics show that only about half of distracted-driving crashes are related to cellphones, and he worried about outlawing other things that might distract and how that may infringe on individual rights.

“I just worry that I’m going to be restricted from holding a hamburger, holding a soda, holding my wife’s hand. And so, I just don’t know where this ends,” he said.

Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, said people would still use cellphones even if the law passed, and argued the law would increase danger because people might hold their phones on their laps to avoid police notice and tickets instead of holding them in their line of sight.

Leah Hansen, a resident, opposed the bill saying, “The government is not here to protect me from my rights. It is to help me secure my rights,” and added that “some distractions don’t necessarily affect every driver’s performance behind the wheel.”

But Jay Torgersen, emergency medical services division chief with Salt Lake County’s Unified Fire Authority, told how he once responded to a head-on crash caused by a driver using a cellphone that killed three of the four family members traveling in the other car.

About the boy who survived, Torgersen said, “The rights of that person were forever affected. Please consider that as you’re making this vote.” He added that Salt Lake County alone sees five accidents a day on average caused by people driving while using a cellphone.

Rep. Steve Waldrip, R-Eden, argued that once individual freedoms impact the lives of others, it is appropriate to limit them. “That’s why we have traffic laws. I mean, that’s what all our traffic laws are based on.”

But Thurston — who called HB160 “a divisive bill” — argued that other traffic laws, such as those outlawing reckless or negligent driving, could handle when distractions affect driving without totally outlawing cellphones.

Russ Hymans, with the Utah Association for Justice, argued the same could be said for drunken driving laws. “But we don’t take DUIs off the books because we know that DUIs lead to car accidents and fatalities. The same could be said for texting and driving even more.”

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.

HB160 would have banned holding a cellphone while driving, and would have allowed enforcement without the need of some other violation committed at the same time.

Moss said she continues to push the bill despite years of setbacks because she believes just talking about the issue helps many people decide to stop using cellphones while driving. She also notes that 22 other states have also banned hand-held cellphones while driving.