Utah lawmakers considering competing bills on cellphone use while driving



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SALT LAKE CITY — Leslee Henson started pushing for tougher distracted driving laws after a texting driver caused an accident that killed her husband on a St. George sidewalk.

The Santa Clara woman and her three children mounted an awareness campaign and enlisted Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, to sponsor a bill last year to do just that. But now she worries a new proposed measure would undo the stricter law.

"My concern is that it's going to take away enforcement," said Henson, who was severely injured when the driver hit her and her husband on a morning walk in March 2013.

David and Leslee Henson were walking along Dixie Drive in St. George when a car that was rear-ended by a texting driver slammed into them, killing 57-year-old David Henson almost immediately as he pushed his wife away from the impact. She broke her back and neck and needed more than 5,000 stitches and minor facial reconstruction surgery.

Rep. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, wants to pull back parts of the 2014 law that makes it illegal to send, write or read text messages, instant messages or email; dial a phone number; access the Internet; view or record a video; and type in data on a smartphone or other mobile device.

"The way I read the bill, it would repeal our distracted driving provisions without admitting that it's going to repeal them, so I hope that the House does significant work on that bill," Urquhart said.

Urquhart has countered with another measure, SB162, this year that would allow only hands-free cellphone use while driving. The bill was assigned to the Senate Transportation, Public Utilities and Technology Committee but hasn't had a hearing yet.

Anderegg's HB63 cleared the House Transportation Committee last week on a 6-5 vote and awaits debate on the House floor.

"I do think we went too far last year," Anderegg said. "From a fundamental liberty standpoint, you've got to be able to use your phone while driving. You've got to be able to."

The bill would allow drivers to make or receive cellphone calls and use a device for GPS or navigational services and listening to music, including using a music app to access the Internet. It would prohibit accessing the Internet; composing, sending or viewing texts, videos and email; as well as manually entering data into an electronic device.

Texting while driving would remain illegal under the bill.

Anderegg said drivers are putting their cellphones on their laps to skirt the law, taking their eyes off the road and making them more dangerous than if they were holding the phone in their hand.

Utah Highway Patrol Capt. Doug McCleve told the House committee that changing the law would make it hard for troopers at 70 mph on the freeway to decide whether a person holding a cellphone is doing something legal or illegal.

University of Utah professor David Strayer said he supports the current law because it's consistent with what science understands about distraction.

"Frankly, it doesn't matter if you're dialing or texting. You're eyes are off the road and that leads to the significant increase in crash risk," said Strayer, who has studied distracting driving the past 10 years. Email: romboy@deseretnews.com Twitter: dennisromboy

Dennis Romboy

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