SALT LAKE CITY — Sponsors will try again with a bill restricting Utah drivers to hands-free phone use only.
“People will no longer be able to hold and manipulate their phone,” Bountiful Police Chief Tom Ross said Thursday. “Whether talking or texting, holding the phone would be prohibited.”
Existing law bans texting while driving, but the bill proposed for the 2019 legislative session would extend it to all “manual manipulation” of a phone, with a few exceptions.
Phone use would be permitted if the device is mounted on the windshield, dashboard or center console in a manner that does not hinder view of the road.
A single swipe or tap of a finger on a dash-mounted phone would still be allowed to activate or deactivate a phone, such as answering or ending a call.
“There’s not a single law enforcement officer who does not feel that manipulating a phone and taking hands off the wheel and pushing a bunch of buttons is very dangerous,” Ross said Wednesday in remarks to the Legislature’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee.
Ross, president of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, said the bill is needed to reduce the frequency of distracted-driving crashes and give police a law that would be easier to enforce.
Said a co-sponsor of the bill, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss: “It’s less about punishing phone users and more about getting folks to focus on driving.”
Sen. Luz Escamilla said the bill is a good compromise. Drivers still could legally make emergency calls or use the phone while the vehicle is not on a road.
Four years ago, a driver ran a red light and hit a car with Escamilla’s 10-year-old daughter inside. The child was seriously injured, and police could not prove the driver was texting, Escamilla said.
“I was very frustrated not to see accountability and justice,” Escamilla said.
Ross said the law change would make it easier for officers to spot illegal phone use.
The Motorcycle Riders Foundation also supports the bill, said a local representative of the national group, Greg Douglas of Utah County.
“It doesn’t go far enough, but it’s good enough for now,” Douglas said. “With handheld devices that are mounted, people can talk and still pay attention to what’s going on around them.”
The state Highway Safety Division said there were more than 5,700 distracted-driving crashes in Utah in 2016, resulting in 3,300 injuries and 27 deaths.
A resident testified to the committee that she had an old car that would not easily accommodate hands-free phone use. She said police should focus more on speeding as well as other distractions such as flashing billboards.
Sponsors acknowledged that hands-free phone use is no panacea, but phones are the root of the problem.
“There is evidence that shows even having conversations can be a distraction,” Ross said.
“We are not arguing or saying that this is the worst form of distracted driving or that this will fix distracted driving,” Ross said. But this (manual use of phones) is arguably the most common, constant distraction. That is why we are focusing on this.
“People can easily make a minor change and still conduct their lives,” he said.
Previous versions of the bill have been killed three times. Most recently, House Bill 64 died in the House Transportation Committee last winter.
“I’ve always felt that at some point we will all have had enough of the problems this is creating,” Ross said. “It’s truly about protecting people and saving lives.”