Distracted driving bill crashes on House floor, once again failing to attract lawmaker support

Stock image, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — State lawmakers, including the majority of Southern Utah representatives, have once again voted down a distracted driver amendment bill banning hand-held use of a cellphone, despite an impassioned plea by its lead sponsor and supporters.

Photo by Antonio_Diaz/Getty Images; St. George News

House Bill 13 sponsor Rep. Carol Spackman-Moss, D-Holladay, told state representatives Monday afternoon during floor debate that most Utahns have experienced the annoyance of someone weaving their vehicle recklessly down the road in front or pausing too long at a red light, but she said distracted driving can have more dire consequences.

“Some cases it’s much, much more serious,” she said. “People tell me and have told me countless stories of how a family member was killed or seriously injured as a result of a distracted driver with a cellphone.”

Although texting while driving is already illegal in Utah, HB 13 would have banned all use of hand-held devices while the vehicle was in motion on the roadway except under certain extreme circumstances, like a citizen reporting an emergency or for law enforcement and emergency service personnel acting “within the course and scope of the law enforcement officer’s or emergency service personnel’s employment.”

Read more: House committee recommends bill with new distracted driver punishments

Simply put, the bill would have required drivers who talk on their cellphone to do it only with a hands-free device such as a Bluetooth attached to their car or on a speaker, with only a single manual swipe allowed to activate the device.

Ideally, the phone would be mounted on the dashboard or above the console and out of the way of distraction. If the bill had passed, law enforcement would have been able to pull over and cite drivers for a class C misdemeanor just for holding it in their hands.

Distracted driving resulted in a three-vehicle crash near 1450 S. River Road, St. George, Utah, Jan. 19, 2017 | File photo by Mike Cole, St. George News

The number of crashes caused by cellphone use has increased dramatically every year for the past six years, Spackman-Moss said, adding that the Utah Department of Transportation reported the two biggest distractions that contribute to crashes are cellphone use and passengers.

“We can’t get rid of our passengers but we can take the cellphones out of our hands.” She said that in states where similar laws have passed for hand-held devices, crashes involving them have decreased by 20 percent, reducing the number of vehicle fatalities.

Rep. Kevin Stratton, R-Orem, attempted to clarify some of the aspects of HB 13 during the floor hearing and said he was concerned and hesitant to support her legislation.

“I just don’t know where this stops. If people aren’t going to act with common sense and do the right thing, is this really going to help?” Stratton asked. “I look at the efforts, and my heart just aches for the tragedy that’s taken pace in St. George to that wonderful family and other areas. It’s just heart wrenching. Why in the world would people just not make the choice to be responsible?”

Read more: Brennan sentenced in 2013 auto homicide

Stratton said he would support and encourage all the efforts the state can make toward education and good safety, but he could not back the legislation in its current form.

“I think we’re going too far here, and that’s my concern,” Stratton said.

Southern Utah Reps. Travis Seegmiller, Walt Brooks, Rex Shipp, Merrill Nelson and Phil Lyman also voted against the bill.

Seegmiller told St. George News some of his constituents in Southern Utah have contacted him and also expressed reservations about the bill.

I believe in trusting citizens to exercise their God-given freedom. In this case, I had many people reach out to me who live within my legislative district who specifically asked me to vote against this bill on their behalf, and I wanted to represent their priorities as well. The concerns that they expressed to me mostly hinged on the idea of not infringing on their freedom. So what it really boils down to is that a responsible person can make the choice on their own to drive safely without the government twisting their arm. There are a lot of things that we should not do, but we don’t need the government telling us what to do at every turn.

Rep. Brad Last and Rep. V. Lowry Snow voted in support of  HB 13, but the bill failed by a vote of 32-41, with two representatives absent or not voting.

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

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