George Chapman: Cell phone bill would just make things worse

(Steve Griffin | Tribune File Photo) A driver talks on her cell phone while driving near the University of Utah Friday January 23, 2009.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss has brought back her bill that would ban the use of cell phones by drivers unless they are used hands free. The bill, HB101, is being supported by the Utah Highway Patrol and many Utah public safety organizations.

The present law makes it illegal to violate traffic laws while using a cell phone. In 2018, there were 52,000 crashes in Utah, and 5,742 were determined to be due to distracted driving. But, even with this bill, it will be almost impossible, as now, to assign blame to using a cell phone.

During testimony at the House Committee, several senior law enforcement officers expressed a need for this bill. They said that they often see individuals violating traffic laws while talking on their cellphones (holding the phone to their head). In one case, they testified to seeing a big rig traveling on a highway while talking on their cell. In another case, they witnessed someone using an iPad on their steering wheel while driving.

What is concerning is that when they were pulled over, the drivers did not get a ticket for violating traffic laws with or without the use of a cell phone. It makes one wonder why we need new laws if the old laws are not being enforced.

Many have the same argument against new gun laws when they read of criminals with years of criminal behavior while using a gun, being allowed to receive minimal sentences.

The main issue with drivers who are driving dangerously is that it is already illegal, with or without a cellphone, and they should be ticketed. When the present law was passed in 2014, only about a third of stops for distracted driving and violating the traffic laws received tickets. The rest received warnings. The sight of a truck driver using a phone is even more egregious, in that it is against federal law.

Passing a law against actions that seem to be in our culture often increases disrespect for laws. It is like the 55 MPH speed limit.

Because mothers work in many families, and because they often are driving their kids around (fathers too), they often will answer their phone when their other children call. Even while driving with their other children, it is hard to demand that they not answer their phone.

When their other children see their parents violating a law, they will think that it is a bad law and ignore the most important problem, and the reason for the original law, trying to stop texting and driving. In other words, a new law that makes all cell phone use illegal unless it is hands free could inadvertently increase texting and driving.

Distracted driving is an issue, but we shouldn’t make it illegal unless traffic laws are violated as the present law says. Driving kids around can be more distracting. Navigation screens in the new cars are also distracting but there is no effort to outlaw them. If you don’t have a watch and use your phone to tell you the time, it could also be distracting.

Cell phones make us more productive, so stopping their use requires more than a cultural shift. It isn’t always convenient or even often that drivers set up their vehicles to use their phones hands free.

During testimony for the bill, it was said that 75% want an anti-cellphone bill. But many Utahns also want bars on every corner, liquor in grocery stores and gambling to be legal. Most Utahns also want more anti-gun laws. The Founding Fathers set up this country as a republic to protect against such tyranny of the majority.

HB101 should be voted down by the Legislature, as it has been many times before. Like gun laws, laws that are not being enforced should not be a good reason for more laws. This bill, if it becomes law, will increase disrespect for laws and could hurt our efforts to stop texting and driving.

George Chapman

George Chapman is a former candidate for mayor of Salt Lake City and writes a blog at georgechapman.net.