House committee recommends bill with new distracted driver punishments

Stock image, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Even amid the ironic distraction of a cell phone ringing during her presentation, Rep. Carol Spackman-Moss, D-Holladay, successfully laid out her case for House Bill 13, the distracted driver amendments bill, to the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, which gave its favorable recommendation Wednesday.

A blue Hyundai Elantra is heavily damaged after a collision caused by a distracted driver on River Road, St. George, Utah, Jan. 8, 2019 | File photo by Andrew Pinckney, St. George News

Moss, who has been pushing for these amendments for a number of years, said she was thankful to the many people who braved the snowy roads and made it to Capitol Hill to speak on behalf of the bill.

Moss said she’s heard complaints not just from her constituents, but people from all over Utah.

“The biggest thing is the extreme danger of having that phone up next to your ear and the temptation to move it down in front of you – and then text easily,” she said.

Nearly everyone in the state can relate, Moss said, whether they have seen someone weaving in front of them, dangerously cutting in front or not slowing down in time for a red light.

In 2007, the state passed a law prohibiting hand-held telephone use but made it a secondary offense, which can only be enforced if a moving traffic violation is committed.

Two years later a similar law prohibiting texting was enacted, Moss said, and for the next few years the number of crashes went down, resulting in fewer traffic fatalities. However, in the past six years the numbers have increased precipitously.

We really believe that it had to do with the fact that people didn’t really think it was against the law because nobody was ever cited really. There was very little opportunity to cite them,” Moss said.

She said she hopes HB 13 will make the laws as simple as possible so drivers will finally be discouraged from using their devices.

“These phones have taken over our lives,” said Bountiful City Police Chief Tom Ross, who was at the hearing representing the Utah Sheriff’s Association and Utah Chiefs of Police. Ross said:

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. It’s time that we pass a law that says you just can not do it unless you have a single manipulation or you pull off the side of the road and then you can text and do all that.

Moss said it isn’t about infringing a person’s civil liberties and freedom to do what they want in their own vehicle. Their actions can have dramatic consequences for themselves but more importantly they are affecting the lives of others.

“Their action that may very well produce an accident or even a fatality that affects other people,” Moss said, adding that in a statewide poll  75 percent of Utahns want to see a ban on hand-held cell phones. “I don’t even think this is a partisan issue anymore. I think it’s one of those things where the public said, ‘I want to be able to drive as safely a possible. I want other people on the road to be doing the same thing.'”

Photo courtesy of Fox 13, St. George News

Besides saying you can’t talk on the phone unless you are using a hands-free device, HB 13 also states that the only manual manipulation you are allowed is a single swipe or tap of a finger. Moss encourages drivers to purchase a good mounting device that will keep their electronics out of their hands and still make it easy for that single swipe.

Drivers can still talk on their phone and hold it up in their in their vehicle as long as they are parked on the roadway. Moss encourages everyone to “pull over if you have to take a call” rather than risk an accident.

It is also permissible  to make a call during a medical emergency, reporting a safety hazard, requesting assistance, reporting criminal activity or law enforcement or emergency service personnel acting within the scope of their employment.

In 2018, there were 2 million licensed drivers on the road in Utah and at any moment 7 percent are using cell phones. That’s 137 distracted drivers on Utah roads every second.

Under HB 13, a person convicted of this crime would be guilty of a class C misdemeanor or a class B misdemeanor if they cause serious bodily injury.

Rep. Val K. Potter, R-North Logan, said it was a shame that Utah needed this legislation. He thinks we all should know better.

“We’re all guilty, I hope there are people out there that are not guilty of that, but many of us are,” he said. “We will survive as a society without handling our cell phones, so I’m very supportive.”

As a city prosecutor Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, said he handles a lot of distracted driving cases and commended the sponsors for bringing forth HB 13.

“I feel like this language as proposed will increase the ability of cities to prosecute this crime,” he said, adding that under the former language it was extremely difficult to get a conviction, which meant people never learned their lesson.

“Don’t be holding it – two hands on the wheel, both eyes on the road,” Moss said.

HB 13 has now been placed on the House calendar for a third reading, more debate and a possible vote.

Read more: See all St. George News reports and opinions on Utah Legislature 2019 issues

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