HB64: Utah bill could make holding phone, talking while driving illegal

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Utah saw 5,748 distracted driver crashes in 2016, according to the Governor’s Highways Safety Association. Ten percent of all Utah crashes involve a distracted driver. (Haley Mosher)

Salt Lake City — A bill requiring Utah drivers to go hands-free while talking on the phone could transform traffic safety laws and reduce distracted driving accidents.

Although 14 states already have hands-free laws, the bill will face strong opposition in Utah during the current legislative session. Despite the odds, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, intends to make Utah the fifteenth state.

Moss devised HB64 after her own dangerous encounter with distracted driving.

Moss said she was driving on I-215 in June when she sensed a large truck in the lane to her right beginning to drift. She thought she could see his elbow perched up against the window and wondered if he was talking on the phone. Instinctively, Moss backed off of the gas, and the truck swerved into her lane a second later.

Moss said there was no time to brake. As she honked her horn, the truck immediately merged to get off the freeway.

“For a moment he looked right at me and he was on his phone and it would have been a horrible accident,” Moss said. “It’s just not safe and it happens all the time.”

Utah law prohibits drivers from texting and manipulating the phone behind the wheel, but this doesn’t include phone calls. Drivers over the age of 18 can legally talk on the phone, despite evidence showing it distracts and increases the likelihood of an accident to occur.

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Data collected by the Governor’s Highways Safety Organization. From 2007 to 2016 number of crashes involving distracted driving has fluctuated greatly. The Utah Highway Safety Office said distracted driving, especially cellphone use, is only going to get worse. (Haley Mosher).

Moss said she believes driving should be a primary part of public safety. She said she is confident this piece of legislation is important.

“Laws combined with enforcement — obviously that’s the important part with PSAs — have a significant impact on people,” Moss said.

In 2007, a similar Utah law passed banning handheld phone use while driving. However, the law only allowed handheld phone users to be ticketed if they were cited for another violation aside from speeding.

According to the Utah Department of Safety Highway Office, crashes involving cellular phones decreased from 2007 to 2010. But after publicity and the hype surrounding the new law faded, crashes involving cellular distractions increased for the next six years.

Since orchestrating the bill, Moss said she has been inundated with calls, emails and tweets from people who support her cause. She said out of all the responses she has received, only one or two have been negative.

Mark Bretzing has served more than 15 years as a police lieutenant. He said he recognizes the importance of having both hands on the wheel and hopes the bill passes. 

“I feel good about the legislation,” Bretzing said.I think handsfree driving is good. I think you can have a conversation on your Bluetooth, and I still think you are paying more attention than if you were holding it in your hand to your ear.”

Bretzing acknowledged Utah has one of the strictest DUI laws in the United States and said he is happy distracted driving is finally getting the attention it deserves.

“You look at California and they have had handsfree laws for years and I just think it’s a circle you have to come around,” Bretzing said.

Rolayne Fairclough worked as AAA’s administrative rep for more than 20 years and has spearheaded traffic safety in Utah since the late 1990s. She said the bill is important because it makes people aware that talking on the phone is distracting.

“In a perfect world it would be better to have no phones while driving — no cells, no hands-free, no whatever — but that’s not going to happen,” Fairclough said.All of these things happen incrementally, but I think that this is a good step.”

Moss and Fairclough said they are aware of the criticism from University of Utah professor David Strayer.

After extensive research, Strayer concluded it’s not holding up a phone that’s distracting — it’s the conversation itself, which is why he said requiring hands-free devices won’t reduce accidents.

According to the National Safety Councilhands-free devices could make driving more dangerous, as drivers could be encouraged to pay less attention behind the wheel because they assume they are safe using a hands-free device.

Moss and Fairclough said they acknowledge how important Strayer’s research is, but Fairclough contended situations involving driving while using a phone are more complicated.

“The physical level of holding the phone adds a little more on to the cognitive level of distraction,” Fairclough said. “This is what the legislature is aiming to fix.”

Fairclough and Moss agreed it is important to get the conversation going about driving safety because even if the bill isn’t passed, knowledge can change people’s habits.

“Dr. Strayer says talking is the distraction, and it doesn’t matter so much if it’s handsfree or not,” Moss said. “I know what’s possible to pass in this legislature and right now there are so many people who talk on their phone and drive, it will be very difficult to pass a law that will prohibit talking.”

Fairclough said every traffic safety bill brought to her faces a lot of opposition because people are wary of government overstepping its bounds in people’s private lives.

“Unless someone has been really touched by a crash and seen the devastation that it can place on families and individuals, they really aren’t aware of what this does and how certain, simple measures can prevent it or to help to prevent it,” Fairclough said.

Whether the bill passes or not, Moss said she is optimistic.

“Governments move slowly sometimes, but if we keep doing incremental things maybe we will get there one day,” Moss said.

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