SALT LAKE CITY — House Minority Whip Carol Spackman Moss has seen Utah drivers use their phones behind the wheel while they back out of parking stalls, navigate traffic, hunch over at stoplights, and even while they zip down the freeway.
According to Moss, D-Holladay, this is a matter of public safety. A driver using a hand-held phone puts other people’s lives at risk — not solely their own. Not only that, but the public has repeatedly come out in force in favor of a more concrete ban against people texting or manipulating the phone while driving, Moss said.
Urged onward by public support and the personal stories of people impacted by distracted driving, Moss introducedHB101to address this issue. It isn’t her first time. Moss has tried to get the same legislation passed each session for years.
At 2 p.m. Friday, members of the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee will once again debate the issue.
Moss said people write and tell her about their injuries caused by distracted driving frequently. She’s had somebody come and testify that their husband was killed by a driver who was texting. She knows others who’ve been personally impacted by this issue and she’s noted numerous polls showing that the majority of Utahns are in favor of a more concrete ban.
“That’s why I’m persisting,” Moss said. “The public wants it.”
Hand-held cellphone use while driving has been illegal in Utah for years, however enforcement is difficult because police can only enforce it if a driver commits another traffic violation concurrently. Law enforcement can’t just pull someone over if they are texting.
HB101 would rectify this by making holding a phone while driving a primary offense.
Drivers would still be allowed to talk on their cellphone, but instead of holding it up to their ear, they’d need to use a hands-free device. People with older cars, Moss said, can put their phone on speaker or mount it with a separate device.
The legislation would still allow drivers to tap or swipe their phones to answer a call or contact Siri. It would also make exceptions for emergencies.
Twenty-one states along with Washington, D.C., allow law enforcement to cite hand-held cellphone use as a primary offense and can pull violators over for being on their phone even if they weren’t committing another traffic offense, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association website.
“The biggest problem is that our law enforcement would like to enforce no texting, but they can’t,” Moss said. “They don’t have the tools to do it.”
Sgt. Nick Street, Utah Highway Patrol public information officer, said both the Department of Public Safety and Highway Patrol support the legislation.
“Our logic falls on the fact that anything that could add to distractions while somebody is behind the wheel — their primary responsibility is to drive — and anything that could limit their primary obligation to operate the motor vehicle is going to be something that we support,” Street said.
The law would allow law enforcement to either stop somebody and educate them about the dangers of holding their phone while driving or, he said, if the results of them being on their phone are severe enough, citing them.
Connor Boyack, head of the Libertas Institute, said the institute opposes the bill. While they want everyone to practice safe driving habits, he believes criminalizing hand-held cellphone use would be more harmful than helpful.
He expressed concern that the legislation would give law enforcement an excuse to pull someone over and ticket them for things that have nothing to do with cellphone use. He also pointed to the penalties the bill would allow as cause for discomfort.
“Our interest is making sure people who haven’t caused anyone harm aren’t unnecessarily punished,” Boyack explained.
He said that though the Utah Legislature changed the law on cellphone use while driving a few years ago, that hasn’t stopped people from doing it. Now, rather than holding their phones in their line of sight, people are more likely to drop their cellphone into their lap, which only increases the risk, he said.
Boyack said there are a number of distractions people can engage in while driving — texting or holding a phone to speak to someone are just several of them.
“We oppose targeting this one distraction without holistically looking at all of the other issues,” he said.
Utah motorcyclist groups have pitched their support behind Moss’ bill. Elvecia Ramos, the Riderz Foundation founder, said group members see drivers focusing on the screen rather than the road every day.
Moss’ legislation is something motorcyclists have supported for years and need to continue fighting for because distracted driving puts motorcyclists at risk, she said.
The Riderz Foundation recently invited other riding agencies as well as law enforcement to come out in support of the bill at a rally at the Capitol.
“It’s unfortunate that we need to pass laws like this to get people off of their phones,” Ramos said. “Hopefully this year will be the year it passes.”
Moss said she had the votes to get the legislation passed in 2019, but then some lawmakers flipped on her. The bill failed in the House 32-41.
She thinks this session might be different in part because her co-sponsor is Rep. Dan Johnson, a Republican lawmaker from Logan. Moss said he is going to help get Republican support for the bill.
The bill also has a minor change toward the end. Previous versions of the legislation made those convicted of a violation guilty of a class C misdemeanor. Moss said they decided it was too harsh and changed the penalty to an infraction. If the person inflicted bodily harm as a result of talking on their cellphone without a hands-free device, that penalty could be increased to a class B misdemeanor.
“You are on the road and your actions affect other people,” Moss said. “It is pretty clear cut. Don’t have your phone in your hand if you’re talking.”