Nineteen other states have done it, and Utah is looking to add its name to the list. Two weeks ago the Utah Senate decided that 16- and 17-year-old drivers should be held to a cell phone free restriction while behind the wheel.
Sen. Ross Romero, Senate minority leader and candidate for Salt Lake County mayor, is sponsoring the bill. After working on the bill for three years, Romero said it all started because of several young drivers’ concerns. The bill was approved with a Senate vote of 19-9 and was assigned to a House committee for consideration.
“There were some young drivers who were urging us to pass the bill,” Romero said. “Their observations were that they had had several classmates who had been in accidents because of the distraction of a cell phone. So that was kind of the motivation; to focus on these young drivers.”
If SB128 passes, the new law hopes to keep drivers under 18 to stop using cell phones when driving by imposing a $50 fine for any violation. Assuming the fine will be enough, the bill says there will be nothing added to the driver’s record if such a violation occurs.
A teenager driving with a cell phone may seem a little tricky for police to spot — but just to add to the difficulty, there are also four exceptions for young drivers included in the proposed law. The following are acceptable defenses for a teenage driver speaking on a cell phone: if it because of a medical emergency, if it is when reporting a safety hazard or requesting assistance with a safety hazard, if it is when reporting a criminal activity or requesting assistance relating to criminal activity, or if it is when communicating with a parent or legal guardian.
Although the exceptions are understandable, opponents say the change could place an officer in a difficult position. Not only will the age of the driver be in question, yet also if they are experiencing any of these four exceptions.
Even with these restrictions, some argue the bill is too restrictive. Romero says that his bill follows restrictions imposed by other states.
Some states restrict not just those who are under 18. In California, New York, Washington and several other states, laws now force all drivers to use hands-free devices while driving. In Illinois and Michigan there is a hands-free regulation for anyone driving in Chicago or Detroit. Other states have also included school bus drivers in cell phone bans. In Texas, New Jersey and 13 other states, school bus drivers cannot use a cell phone while driving. Currently, Utah only has a regulation against texting while driving.
These additional regulations also seem to be saving lives, but Romero said for now he is only working toward the regulation regarding teenage drivers.
“The development of a young person’s brain also plays into it,” he said when asked why he had a concern for only teenage drivers. “There is a reason why we have alcohol laws at 21, it’s because the young person’s brain is still developing and this recognizes that need for maturation.”
When asked if the hands-free device could be a possible option, as several other states have done, Romero said the research he received showed there wasn’t a big enough difference when using a hands-free phone to include that in the legislation.
Because the bill has been in process for several years, Romero said he feels like he has gained enough support to pass the bill.
“I think more people understand what the bill does, and hopefully the bill will have support in the house,” he said. “More groups are supporting this bill: the Pediatric Society, the Firefighters Association of Utah and the Utah PTA. We are getting a lot more people engaged in the conversation on how this can be an additional tool in protecting our youngest community members.”