ST. GEORGE — A bill to enhance public safety by reducing the risks associated with distracted driving via cell phone use has hit this year’s legislative slate for a third time – efforts that continue as the number of crashes across the state have been on an upward trend since 2010.
A number of bills have been passed over the last several years addressing the dangers associated with using a mobile device while driving. Based on crash numbers that have continued to climb for more than a decade, it appears the legislative bills that have passed have yet to have any impact on the number of traffic accidents involving distracted driving due to cell phone use in Utah.
In Utah, more than 9% of all crashes, or more than 5,700, reportedly involved a distracted driver in 2018, the most recent data available. Those crashes left 18 people killed and another 3,100 injured.
To that end, legislatures are taking another shot at the issue with the introduction of HB 160, Distracted Driver Amendments, which if passed will amend provisions related to the use of a handheld wireless communication device while operating a motor vehicle and essentially prohibit the use of a handheld device while operating a motor vehicle.
The bill includes two exceptions in limited cases – if reporting a crime or during an emergency as long as it is a “hands-free operation,” and law enforcement officers acting within the scope of their employment are also exempt.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Carol Spackman-Moss, D-Salt Lake City, told St. George News she decided to introduce the bill again this year due to the “many advocates” that have reached out to her and ask that she persist with the cause designed to enhance traffic safety.
She went on to say the existing law allows officers the ability to cite drivers for using a cell phone only during a stop for a primary traffic offense.
“Without a primary offense to give law enforcement the ability to stop and cite drivers,” she said, “behavior will not change.”
In fact, she said, it is getting worse, not better, citing that drivers not only continue to text and drive without the handless feature, they are also using FaceTime and even attending Zoom meetings while driving.
It may take another legislative session for the bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, to move forward, as HB 160 was sent to the House Rules Committee on Jan. 21 and it has remained there with no further action.
Moss said she has reached out to the Republican House leadership to inquire as to why they are holding the bill, adding that HB 160 is “a simple but critical fix to the existing law which already prohibits the manipulation of a cell phone while driving,” she said.
In Utah, the issues related to cell phone use while operating a motor vehicle were first addressed in 2007 when a law was passed prohibiting handheld telephone use. However, the law could only be enforced if a traffic violation was committed.
Two years later, a law was passed prohibiting texting while operating a moving motor vehicle, and after another two years, a “texting” field was added to the distracted driving options on the police traffic crash report in 2011.
Despite legislative efforts, crashes involving cell phone use have continued to increase year after year since 2010, according to data from the Utah Department of Public Safety’s 2018 crash report.
Opponents of the bill cite insurance industry researchers that have determined that any cell phone use bans have only worsened the problem, and even “hands-free use” is not any safer for drivers since high-visibility enforcement is typically used to catch drivers who are texting or using their phone while operating a vehicle. They warn that drivers may keep their phones out of the view of police, which is typically on their lap, which only increases the amount of time their eyes are diverted from the road.
In essence, any adaptations have been to reduce the risk of getting caught using a cell phone while driving, as opposed to reducing the distractions inside of the vehicle which in turn makes the roads safer for everyone.
Opponents also say that drivers engage in many tasks that are distracting and yet the law does not recognize them and has yet to criminalize those behaviors. Additionally, fatal crashes involving a driver distracted by cell phone use account for just 1% of all highway fatalities in the U.S., so criminally punishing any interaction with a phone is unnecessarily excessive and is over-criminalization.
Notwithstanding, the reliability of the data is called into question since distracted driving crashes may be underreported due to fact that many of the existing laws are difficult to enforce.
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