Tribune Editorial: Cracking down on drinking but not cellphone use is nonsense

(Photo courtesy of University of Utah) Volunteer participates in study on distracted driving caused by new infotainment systems in cars.

Some of the rules that Utah’s elected leaders have written in what are doubtless sincere efforts to make our streets and highways less dangerous have not been fully appreciated in some quarters.

One big reason for the controversy is that the same Legislature that has been eager to discourage drivers from having any alcohol at all before driving has been reluctant to be as concerned about drivers’ unsafe use of cellphones, even though the science of the matter — much of it developed right up the hill at the University of Utah — leads to the conclusion that drivers distracted by use of mobile phones are at least as dangerous as those who have been drinking.

That couldn’t be because a Legislature that is dominated by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is happy to pass laws against things those legislators don’t do anyway? While that same lawmaking body contains a significant number of people who work in real estate and other businesses where cellphone use is practically universal?

There has been much criticism of a bill that passed the Utah Legislature in 2017 — but not due to take effect until the end of this year — that would make us the first state in the nation to lower the acceptable blood alcohol content from the usual 0.08 to 0.05.

Opposition to the law has come largely — but not exclusively — from the restaurant and hospitality industry. The argument is that such a low level of blood alcohol basically forbids anyone from having even a single drink before getting behind the wheel. The opposition describes it as an extreme measure that would do little to actually make highways safer while making criminals out of innocent people and undercutting business in restaurants and bars.

The answer to that argument is that the new rules may be extreme, but that extreme actions that save even one life are worth taking.

Unless, of course, they aren’t.

Individual lawmakers have tried for years to tighten the rules for the use of cellphones by drivers. But the Legislature hasn’t been persuaded to go beyond the current statute, which says that it is illegal to talk on a phone while driving, but that it is a law not to be enforced unless a driver has already been stopped or cited for violating some other traffic law (other than speeding).

State Rep. Carol Moss will make another attempt this year to make phoning while driving a primary offense. The arguments she will face against her bill are basically the same as those against the lower BAC: that it is government overreach, difficult to enforce and criminalizes behavior that is generally considered normal.

Normal, but extremely dangerous.

Utah lawmakers who support the lower BAC levels should see that tougher laws against cellphone use by drivers are driven by the same logic. And they should follow that logic where it leads.