Possible texting-while-driving ban worries police

Possible texting-while-driving ban worries police

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Some law enforcement officials are concerned that a bill passed by the Legislature to ban texting and e-mailing while driving will be all but impossible to enforce if it becomes law.

During their 45-day session lawmakers passed House Bill 290, which would make anyone convicted of sending text messages or e-mails while operating a moving motor vehicle guilty of a class C misdemeanor.

Penalties could be increased for repeat offenses, if a crash happens while someone is texting or e-mailing or if someone dies in a crash where texting or e-mailing is involved.

"Of course we always support anything that enhances public safety," said Sgt. Jeff Nigbur, a Utah Highway Patrol spokesman. "But why are we putting a law into effect that's going to be so difficult to enforce?"

Gov. Jon Huntsman has yet to act on the bill, which would take effect July 1. Lisa Roskelley, Huntsman's spokeswoman, said the bill is going through legal review and Huntsman has not expressed an opinion on it.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said eight states -- Alaska, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey and Washington -- and the District of Columbia have laws similar to the one proposed in Utah.

Nigbur said that just because someone is holding a cell phone doesn't mean that person is texting, and he noted that dialing 10-digits to make a phone call could easily look like the person is sending a quick text.

The Senate sponsor of the bill, Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said that even though it's difficult to tell what someone is doing with a cell phone, the bill addresses the importance of keeping drivers' attention on the road.

"It's a mind-set we're changing," Hillyard said. "If we had to guarantee every law we passed would always be enforced, there wouldn't be many."

Hillyard said that even speeding drivers don't always get tickets. This bill was drafted specifically as a tool to enhance penalties in crashes where text messaging or e-mailing is involved, he said.

And texting is becoming more popular across the United States.

There are about 262 million wireless subscribers in the United States, or 83 percent of the U.S. population, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association, a nonprofit group representing the wireless industry.

The association said that between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2008, more than 384 billion text messages were sent in the U.S., 22 billion more than in all of 2007.

Lara Jones, a spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City Police Department, said the agency's goal is to get drivers to voluntarily comply, something that could require public awareness campaigns.

Jones said the department would like to support any public education efforts but that funding them could create budget problems.

Some Utah residents are also unsure about how well the proposed law could be enforced.

Centerville resident Bryan Willey said the Legislature should either ban the use of cell phones while driving entirely or allow them, but not pick and choose how they can be used. "It's a good theory, but how can they really enforce it?" he said. "How do they know I'm not just checking to see who just called?"

Willey said that though his 17-year-old daughter tells him she doesn't text while driving, he's sure she does. He said he has warned her, but he doubts she'll quit, because she "is texting all the time." He said she'll "just have to deal with the consequences" if she gets a ticket.

Willey also has a 15-year-old son who has his learner's permit. Willey said he hopes parents will have better control over newer drivers since they may be able to use the new law as a reinforcement behind their warnings. "It's not just sneaking up on parents now," he said. "It's an issue they're more prepared for, since everyone has a phone now."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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