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Proposed law aims to take cellphones out of Utah drivers' hands

By Dennis Romboy, KSL | Posted - Nov. 14, 2018 at 7:31 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Everyone has seen drivers drift across traffic lanes as their eyes go from the road to their laps or whose heads jerk up as they come to a sudden stop, cellphone in hand.

Utah laws against distracted driving have made it illegal to use handheld devices while driving for a decade, and updated laws against texting and emailing behind the wheel were enacted in 2014.

But Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, wants to go one step further by giving police the authority to pull over drivers for merely holding a cellphone.

"My intent has always been to pass something that would improve public safety because people are dying from these accidents," she told the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee on Wednesday.

Moss' bill would limit cellphone use to dashboard-, windshield- or center console-mounted devices that could be operated with one swipe or tap of the finger.

The committee endorsed the measure, though two members voted against it. The Legislature will consider the bill when it meets in January. Similar legislation died in a legislative committee earlier this year.

Bountiful Police Chief Tom Ross said drivers using cellphones are causing more crashes on Utah roadways, particularly rear-enders and hitting cyclists and pedestrians.

"We know this is real," he said. "You cannot be at an intersection almost across the board and look around and not see someone manually manipulating a cellphone."

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said her 10-year-old daughter was hit by a driver who ran a red light while on a cellphone four years ago, resulting in six broken vertebrae in her neck and a long hospital stay. Escamilla said she was frustrated because it couldn't be proved that the driver was texting.

Drivers, she said, don't say, "I was texting, guys. Sorry about the crash."

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Ross, president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, told the committee that it's difficult for police to enforce the current law because they can't tell if someone is texting or dialing a phone.

"This bill is really aimed at getting drivers to focus on driving," he said.

Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, one of two dissenters on the bill, questioned whether a hands-free device is any safer than a handheld one. If lawmakers want to get serious about distracted driving, they should consider all kinds of distractions, he said.

"If somebody's weaving, if somebody's distracted, throw the book at them. I don't care what they were doing," Daw said. "This bill just seems like it's appeasing a perception, not actually moving the needle on making things safer."

Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, said the bill would make the law much clearer.

Law enforcement right now is in a "heck of a bind" trying to figure out if drivers were actually touching the phone or pushing a button.

Moss said 16 states have passed laws banning handheld phones and 10 others have legislation pending.

"You don’t see people in California on their phones," Escamilla said. "If they can do it, why can't we do it?"

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