Cell phone & texting laws, legislation

 Cell phone & texting laws, legislation

Last updated: March 2, 2020 Cell phone/texting news: State Rep. Carol Spackman Moss returns in 2020 with another bid for a hands-free law. House Bill 101, approved by the House in late February and advancing in the Senate, seeks lesser penalties than her 2019 measure, which failed to advance. Opponents cited personal freedoms and declining traffic fatalities. “It sounds to me like there’s lots of excuses” for not passing the distracted driving bill, Moss said during floor debate.

At least 273 people died on Utah’s roads and highways during 2017, with 20 of those fatalities linked to distracted driving, preliminary state numbers show. Traffic deaths were down slightly from 2016, which saw 27 fatalities linked to distracted driving. State officials link at least 15 percent of crashes to cell phone use.

Utah’s original text-messaging law, which went into effect in 2009, was strengthened and updated in May 2014 to bar most handling of cell phones while driving, although enforcement is limited.

Distracted driving legislation (2020): House Bill 101: Would require hands-free operation of a wireless communications device such as cell phones while driving. Traffic infraction, but a class B misdemeanor if bodily damage results. Primary enforcement. Approved by the Law Enforcement Committee in a 6-2 vote of Feb. 7. Approved by the House in a 40-32 vote of Feb. 24. Approved by the Senate Transportation Committee in a 5-1 vote of March 2. (Moss)

Distracted driving notes (2020): State Rep. Carol Spackman Moss said her hands-free law will help police halt distracted driving behaviors such as texting, which is currently against state law: “Law enforcement can’t stop it because it’s not a primary offense,” Moss said. “This bill would make it possible for law enforcement to pull someone over if they see them holding the phone and driving.”

2019 distracted driving legislation: House Bill 13: Would prohibit holding of a handheld wireless communications device while driving. Approved by the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee in a unanimous vote of Feb. 6. Rejected by the full House in a 32-41 vote of Feb. 25. (Moss)

2019 distracted driving notes: The Salt Lake City Police Department handed out 1,188 warnings and 27 citations to motorists accused of distracted driving in the first nine months of 2019. That’s about double the amount of 2018, police said.

HB 13 author Rep. Carol Spackman Moss notes that Utah drivers can be cited for typing on their cell phones, but, “People didn’t think it was against the law, because no one was ever cited.” She added, “Everyone has a story about almost being hit or knows someone injured or killed by someone who was distracted by their phone.” The legislator found some success in 2019 by having the plan routed around a previously hostile House Transportation Committee, but that wasn’t enough.

Rep. Keven Stratton was among the Republicans voting to reject HB 13. “I just don’t know where this stops,” he said of “over criminalizing” distracted driving laws.

2018 distracted driving legislation: House Bill 64: Would prohibit use of a handheld wireless communications device while operating a motor vehicle without the use of hands-free technology. Adds “voice communication” to texting law. Rejected by the Transportation Committee in a 3-5 vote of Feb. 9. Dead. (Moss)

2018 distracted driving notes: A 2018 poll suggests 75 percent of Utah residents are supportive of a hands-free distracted driving law.

State Sen. Luz Escamilla says her daughter was severely injured in a crash linked to a texting driver. She supports a handheld cell phone law. “You don’t see people in California on their phones,” Escamilla told a committee hearing in November. “If they can do it, why can’t we?”

State Rep. Carol Spackman Moss’ proposed expansion of the current texting & driving law was rejected by the House Transportation Committee in a 3-5 vote of Feb. 9. Moss sought to add “voice communication” as a prohibited activity — unless the cell phone is used in hands-free mode. The lawmaker calls her proposed amendments “an incremental step in the right direction” that expands and clarifies existing distracted driving laws. The measure was House Bill 64 of 2018.

Moss said during debate on her unsuccessful HB 64: “Here in Utah we now have the toughest DUI law in the country, yet our cellphone laws do not match that.”

Three-fourths of Utah voters back a handheld cell phone ban for drivers, according to a poll released in early February. The Salt Lake Tribune said its poll found strong majority support for HB 64 across party lines.

2016 distracted driving notes: Utah saw 5,748 distracted-driver crashes in 2016. There were 3,303 injuries and 27 deaths linked to distractions that year.

State troopers say they’ve made 733 traffic stops for distracted driving in 2016, as of mid-May. Most received warnings but 208 tickets were handed out, the Highway Patrol reports. That’s roughly on pace with 2015, a year that saw 1,443 stops and 491 citations.

State Rep. Jacob Anderegg didn’t return in 2016 with the original version of his measure (House Bill 63), which was designed to roll back many of the restrictions on cell phone use introduced in 2014. “People haven’t stopped using their phones,” he says of the 2014 law’s changes.

2015 distracted driving notes: A woman accused of texting & driving has been sentenced to a year in jail for killing a man and severely injuring his wife in St. George. Carla Lynn Brennan denied texting as she rear-ended a vehicle, forcing it into the pedestrian couple. The judge indicated Sept. 2 that some of the sentence later could be served under home confinement. Brennan denies texting at the time of the crash.

A House voice vote of March 12 left the compromise distracted driving bill dead in the House. State Rep. Jacob Anderegg and Sen. Steve Urquhart compromised and collaborated on the new version of House Bill 63, which sought to ease some of Utah’s distracted driving provisions but also limit cell phone use to one-touch or voice-controlled operation. The amendments were added March 4.

The compromise bill, as amended, would have removed some of the restrictions that went into effect in 2014. Rep. Anderegg’s bill basically barred texting & driving and use of handheld cell phones. Smartphone GPS would have been allowed. Drivers were specifically permitted to use hands-free-equipped devices and to engage one-touch functions.

Under House Bill 63, the distracted driving fine would have remained at the state’s current $100 (under an amendment to the Anderegg plan), unless the distracted driving leads to bodily injury ($1,000 maximum).

Roughly 38 percent of Utah voters “strongly favor” a law against handheld cell phone use by drivers that allows police to stop and cite offenders, a poll taken in early March suggests. About 19 percent of the 406 voters surveyed by Dan Jones and Associates strongly opposed the idea.

“What we did last year was the nanny state at its finest level,” says state Rep. Jacob Andregg, sponsor of the plan to dial back the distracted driving law changes of 2014.

The Utah Highway Patrol testified against Andregg’s original House Bill 63 at a Jan. 29 hearing of the House Transportation Committee. Allowing drivers to handle their cell phones “would create significant challenges” for law enforcement, a spokesman said, since drivers who were texting could beat tickets by saying they were entering phone numbers. Current law bars almost all typing on keyboards, including entry of phone numbers. The bill was narrowly approved by the Transportation Committee in a 6-5 vote Feb. 6 and later amended in a compromise version.

State Sen. Steve Urquhart wasn’t a fan of Andregg’s legislation, but says some tinkering with the changes he (Urquhart) pushed through the legislature in 2014 could be in order: “I think we probably could do some things to help with enforcement,” Urquhart told the St. George News. He later filed SB 162 and then compromised with Andregg on House Bill 63.

2015 distracted driving legislation: House Bill 63: Would allow drivers to use cell phones only with hands-free accessories or in voice-controlled mode. Rewrites existing law to remove some recent restrictions on use of smartphones. Allows for GPS but not applications. Bars use of handheld devices to manually operate or view “information” such as writing, games, recordings, pictures, videos. Fine (as amended) is $100 but $1,000 if bodily injury or death occurs. Discussed and held by the House Transportation Committee (7-6 vote) on Jan. 29. Approved by the Transportation Committee in a 6-5 vote of Feb. 6. See changes of 2014 under SB 253, below. Compromise version of bill amended and approved by the Senate Transportation Committee on March 4. Approved by the Senate in a 20-7 vote of March 12. Died in the House after voice vote of March 12. (Anderegg)

Senate Bill 162: Would bar use of handheld cell phones while driving. Edits and simplifies existing restrictions. Voice operation specifically allowed. Approved by the Senate Transportation Committee in a 3-1 vote of Feb. 18 (Urquhart)

2014 distracted driving legislation: Senate Bill 253: Broadens and amends current texting & driving law to update technology covered. Outlaws most forms of typing while driving. Sets first-offense fine at $100. Approved by the Transportation Committee in a 2-1 vote of Feb. 28. Approved by the full Senate in a 17-8 vote of March 10. Approved by the House in a 41-28 vote of March 13. Final sign-off in the Senate on March 14. Signed into law by the governor April 1. Takes effect May 13. (Urquhart)

2014 distracted driving notes: Utah Highway Patrol troopers say they cited 380 drivers for violation of the distracted driving law in the year after it was revised. The number of cell phone-related accidents reportedly fell from 140 to 126 in that 12-month period.

Utah Highway Patrol troopers pulled over almost 1,100 people for distracted driving violations in the eight months since the state toughened its laws. Many received warnings. The new law — which went into effect in mid-May — still allows drivers to talk on cell phones, which is not regulated in Utah. As amended, it also allows for use of GPS apps and hands-free technologies. Prohibited are email, video and Internet surfing. Fines up to $100 for first offenders.

UHP said it made 692 distracted driving stops in the period from May to October 2014 — a significant increase over the 166 of last year. Troopers credit the revised law.

State Sen. Steve Urquhart thought Utah’s texting & driving law was behind the times. The House and Senate agreed, voting in favor of the Urquhart bill, with Gov. Gary Herbert giving final approval April 1. The changes are now in effect.

Urquhart’s Senate Bill 253 edited and rewrote parts of the state’s lone distracted driving law, to outlaw almost all typing on keyboards while behind the wheel, including entry of phone numbers. “It deals with any and all manipulation of a device,” says Urquhart, who believed that texting drivers were beating their tickets by saying they were dialing a number.

Utah Highway Patrol troopers handed out 150 warnings the first day under the revised law.

The bill was inspired, in part, by the death of David Henson and severe injuries to his wife Leslee. The St. George couple were walking a year ago when hit by a 50-year-old woman who allegedly was texting and speeding. The driver has been charged with automotive homicide.

2013 distracted driving legislation: House Bill 103: Would bar drivers under the age of 18 from using cell phones while behind the wheel. Fine: $25, no points (as amended). Exceptions include “communicating with a parent or legal guardian.” Approved by the Justice Committee in a 7-4 vote of Feb. 13. Approved by the House in a 48-22 vote of Feb. 25 and sent to the Senate, where it was “held” by the Transportation Committee. Rejected by the Senate in an 11-13 vote of March 12. Reconsidered and approved in a 17-12 vote on March 13. Signed by the governor April 1. (Perry)

2013 distracted driving notes: The 2013 law that outlaws use of wireless communications devices by drivers under the age of 18 comes with $25 fines for violators but no points. The teen cell phone bill does come with what could be seen as a major loophole: “Communicating with a parent or legal guardian” is an exempted use.

Logan police say their crackdown on texting while driving resulted in a 30 percent reduction in accidents on Main Street. The two-year “Stop the Main Distraction” campaign was funded by the Utah Highway Safety Office.

A Jensen man has been sentenced to up to five years in prison on charges of vehicular homicide in the death of a 15-year-old pedestrian. The charges are among the first filed under the 2012 update of the Utah texting law that broadened the definition of negligence in auto homicide cases linked to handheld device use. Jeffery Bascom, 29, was sentenced July 1. Prosecutors said Bascom was texting & driving at the time he drifted off the road and killed 15-year-old Tommy Clark. The teen’s mother said she was pleased that Bascom would do time, but “when you lose a child you never have a sense of resolution.” The texting law rewrite went into effect in May 2012.

Of the teen cell phone measure HB 103, the St. George Spectrum editorialized Feb. 27: “This bill really is a “don’t talk to your friends” bill. … more thought should go into this legislation. The Senate should defeat this bill or not introduce it at all.” The newspaper said the $25 fine wasn’t “much of a deterrent” and it wondered why Utah’s adult drivers wouldn’t be banned from cell phone use as well.

2012 distracted driving legislation: Senate Bill 98: Would broaden the definition of text messaging in the current Utah text messaging law. Includes composing a text, entering data and accessing apps. Allows use of handheld device for GPS. In cases of automobile homicide, broadens definitions to negligence in use of handheld electronic devices, not just texting. Approved by the Senate Transportation Committee in a 3-0 vote taken Feb. 22. Approved by the Senate in a 24-4 vote Feb. 28 and then by the House in a 39-32 vote March 6. Latest action: Signed by the governor March 19, 2012, and took effect May 8. (Hillyard)

Senate Bill 128: Would prohibit use of cell phones by drivers under the age of 18. Exception made for communicating with parents. Fine: $50, no points. Approved by the Senate Transportation Committee in a 3-2 vote on Jan. 27. Approved by the Senate on a second reading Feb. 6 (19-9-1 vote). Final approval by the Senate on Feb. 7 (19-9 vote). Rejected by the House on March 8 and dead. (Romero)

2012 distracted driving notes: In 2012, the House rejected a Senate plan that sought to prohibit use of cell phones by drivers under the age of 18. It was a rerun of 2010 and 2011, when bills that would have outlawed use of all cell phones by drivers under age 18 also were approved by the state Senate, but died in the House.

Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, saw his teen cell phone measure SB 128 clear its second and final vote in the Senate with continued support from Republicans. Both Senate votes registered 19 senators in favor and 9 opposed. The bill failed to gain traction in the House, however, and is dead for the year.

Romero said SB 128 was inspired by a group of teens who lobbied for a previous attempt to ban handheld cell phone use by Utah drivers. His bill, which applies only to drivers under the age of 18, would have no effect on the violator’s DMV record. “I’ve heard from several parents who really like the idea — that it would be against the law and yet the penalties would be relatively small,” Romero told the Deseret News in late January.

Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, was one of two members of the Transportation Committee to vote against Sen. Romero’s SB 128. He cited the familiar list of other distracted behaviors, such as “eating lunch” and grooming. “I’m not sure we can regulate inappropriate behavior,” Adams said. “I just don’t know how microscopic we should be.” The bill advanced to the full Senate, regardless.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, says his SB 98 closes a loophole in the current law that allows drivers to compose email. His plan would make it clear that “texting is a violation of the law even if you don’t send the message.”

84 percent of Utah adults support the prohibition of cell phone use for drivers under 18, preliminary numbers from a Utah Department of Health survey indicate. A cell phone ban for all drivers registered the support of 70 percent, the Deseret News reported in late January.

2011 legislation (dead): HB 95 second substitute: Amends careless driving law to include new violation of operation of a vehicle while impaired by fatigue or illness. First HB 95 substitute created by House Rules Committee cleaned up language in the original HB 95. Sent to the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Feb. 17, which rejected the bill as it was and days later created the second substitute (that removed a section related to seat belts). Bill (second sub) approved by the House on March 1 and transmitted to the Senate, where it was defeated in a 9-19 vote on March 10. (Perry)

SB 45: Would prohibit use of cell phones by drivers under the age of 18. Fine: $50, no points. Primary enforcement. Approved by the Senate Transportation Committee on Feb. 7. Approved by the full Senate in a 21-4 vote on Feb. 17 and introduced in the House. Reported as “not considered” by the House transportation committee on Feb. 28. Second House reading March 4. Latest action: Defeated in a 32-38 vote in the full House on March 8. (Romero)

2011 distracted driving notes: Utah’s traffic fatality rate is on track to hit a 37-year low in 2011, based on numbers from January-June. The Utah Department of Transportation said July 21 that there were 91 deaths in the first half, compared with 96 in 2010. Five of the deaths were linked to distracted driving. UDOT Traffic and Safety Director Robert Hull urged motorists “to remember to buckle up and avoid the behaviors that most commonly cause crashes—distracted driving, impaired driving, aggressive driving and speeding.”

Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, reportedly saidduring debate on SB 45 that, as a law officer, he had to tell parents of their teens’ deaths in traffic. “There’s something in my opinion that is more horrific, and that is the constant attack on liberty and freedom that we see in this Legislature.” The bill was defeated.

The state Department of Transportation says distracted driving is causing an increasing amount of accidents in Utah, especially the use of cell phones and handheld music players. In 2010, 18 deaths were blamed on distracted drivers. Overall, 235 motor vehicle fatalities were logged, the fewest since 1974.

Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake, put some teeth into his failed distracted driving legislation of 2010, which sought to ban use of cell phones by teen drivers, but called for only secondary enforcement. This year, his SB 45 is tagged for primary enforcement, meaning police can stop and cite offenders for that reason alone.

A high school senior testified Feb. 7 in favor of SB 45: “When I see teenagers in a car driving around (using cell phones), it makes me really scared for my life,” she said. (TV news video below)

Distracted driving legislation champion Rep. Phil Riesen did not run for re-election after his term ended in 2010. The Democrat saw his cell phone legislation fail in both 2009 (all drivers) and 2010.

2010 legislation HB 237: Would have prohibited teens under 18 years old from using a cell phone while driving on Utah roads and highways. Penalties included points against the driver’s license. Defeated. (Riesen)

SB 113 (and substitute): Would make the ban against teen drivers using cell phones a secondary offense with no points against license. (Romero) Also a substitute version from the House agreeing to these provisions (Riesen). This was the compromise version of the teen cell phone bill. Both defeated.

2009 legislation Utah House Bill 290: Prohibits text messaging while driving. Approved in the House and Senate and sent to Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who signed it into law on March 25. Enforcement began July 1, 2009.

Utah Senate Bill 149 (sub): Would outlaw text messaging while operating a motor vehicle. Approved by the full Senate as a substitute bill and sent to the House Transportation Committee on Feb. 26, 2009. Filed as a defeated bill March 13.

HB 95, from Rep. Phil Riesen, would prohibit use of wireless devices while operating a motor vehicle. The bill includes text messaging and cell phones, and does not allow for use of hands-free devices. Bill dead for year.

HB 248: Would ban use of “wireless communication devices” while driving on Utah’s roads. Provides for use with hands-free devices. Includes text messaging and cites PDAs. “Bill substituted” on Feb. 20, creating exceptions for law enforcement, etc. Bill “held” (tabled) by House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Feb. 24 and filed as a defeated bill.

HB 281: Targets text messaging while driving. Would ban use of wireless communications devices while driving through reduced speed zones and parking lots, unless a hands-free device is utilized. Would prohibit drivers under 18 from using wireless devices while behind the wheel. Filed as a defeated bill March 13.

Utah cell phone legislation notes (through 2009) Rep. Stephen Clark, R-Provo, sponsored the 2009 House plan to ban text messaging while driving. The vote in the Senate was 26-1. In the House it was 45-29.

Rep. Phil Riesen blamed the 2009 failure of his driving cell phone ban on retaliation for an unrelated ethics allegation he made against another lawmaker.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, saw his version of the texting ban SB 149 advance to the full Senate on Feb. 6, 2009, and then to the House after the Senate’s approval on Feb. 25. Penalties increase to possible jail time after two prior offenses. Texting and causing an accident would be considered a third-degree felony. Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, was the only senator to vote against Hillyard’s bill.

Hillyard told the Herald Journal that he didn’t include cell phones in his Utah texting bill because it would decrease the chances of passage: “(If) my bill is the only bill left because of the controversy about cell phones, I think my bill has a very good chance of passing.”

Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, helped kill the hands-free bill HB 248, citing the careless driving offense on the books (above) and saying, “The bill would make no change in our law.”

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, defended her defeated HB 248: “You can make a big improvement in safety if people have both hands on the wheel.”

Earlier, Moss said, “It would at least be a first important step to get people to put both hands on the wheel again and not have a hand up to their ear.” She has been an advocate of such a law for several years.

Jeff Nigbur, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, said his group is watching all five Utah cell phone/texting bills, and “will focus on the one that gets close to passing.”

Rep. Phil Riesen’s cell phone driving bill HB 95 was endorsed by the Salt Lake Tribune on Jan. 28, 2009.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clinton, is preparing legislation for the 2009 session that would ban text messagingby drivers and outlaw cell phone use in certain school zones. “If we can restrict drinking and driving, we should certainly restrict anything else that causes potential harm and (texting while driving) is very high risk,” Ray told ABC4.com.

The Utah lawmakers might want to check with their constituents. A Tribune poll of Utahns conducted in early January 2009 shows that 80% support limits on cell phone use by motorists. 15% were opposed to cell phone driving laws and 5% were undecided. (500 voters, margin of error 4.5%)

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