Utah House committee passes bill to prohibit handheld use of cellphones while driving

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A ban on even holding a cellphone while driving got one step further than last year, as a House committee approved Wednesday a measure similar to a bill that failed in 2018.

HB13 makes any handheld use of a cellphone illegal while driving, even when using the phone for navigation and voice communication. The bill would allow a single swipe or tap on a device that is mounted in a way that allows the driver to see the road. It also allows use in an emergency and for reporting hazards or crimes.

“We are having a difficult time controlling it ourselves, all of us, myself included, and it’s time that we pass a law that says you just cannot do it unless you have a single manipulation or you pull off to the side of the road,” Bountiful Police Chief Tom Ross said.

Texting while driving and talking while holding the phone to an ear is already illegal in Utah. According to the bill’s sponsor, House Minority Whip Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, after the law to make texting illegal passed in 2009 crashes went down for the next five years, but in the past six years, they have gone up precipitously.

“We really believe that it had to do with the fact that people didn’t really think it was against the law,” Moss said.

The House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend the bill. Moss presented a similar bill last year but the House Transportation Committee did not vote in favor of the bill.

Greg Douglas, vice president and state liaison of American Bikers Aiming Toward Education, said on his way to the Capitol from Utah County he counted 32 people using a cellphone while operating a vehicle. He stopped counting after seeing a fuel-tank driver texting.

“Anytime somebody uses their handheld device, unconsciously or consciously, they’re making a decision that their lives … and the lives of everyone around them are less important than what they’re doing on their phone,” Douglas said.

Moss shared a statistic from 2018 which said 7 percent of drivers, at any given moment, are using cellphones.

“This is the biggest complaint I get from, not just constituents, but people all over the state saying … ‘you need to pass a law prohibiting handheld phones,'” Moss said.

George Chapman spoke against the bill, saying it would encourage disrespect for the law instead of helping with the real goal, which is trying to stop texting while driving.

Ross pointed out that cellphones are very different from things like doing hair or switching radio stations because we are addicted to them.

“Tell me anyone in this room who, when your phone gets a text message, you don’t immediately feel like you need to grab it. And if you don’t grab it, it bugs the heck out of you because you’re thinking ‘what am I missing,'” Ross said.

Moss reminded parents they are models for their kids, and if they don’t want their children using phones while driving they need to stop as well. She said if it takes a law to encourage the change, then it is worth it.

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