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Utah Senate Votes To Approve Bill To Crack Down On Distracted Driving

Photo of a road sign that reads "stay alert talk or text later"
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Utah drivers would be barred from holding a cell phone while driving, under a bill passed by the state Senate Wednesday.

After an impassioned debate, the Utah Senate voted 19-8 to approve a bill that cracks down on distracted driving.

Under current law, drivers are barred from writing and reading texts and emails, dialing a phone number and recording video, among other things. Under this bill, drivers would be barred from even holding a cellphone. But they could still use the hands free functions of their phone and swipe or tap their device to activate those functions. 

“If drivers hold the phone in their hands, they can be pulled over,” said Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George, the bill’s floor sponsor. “The texting bill has been complicated for law enforcement to deal with because of that. This eliminates that.”

Several lawmakers emphasized the dangers of distracted driving during the debate — more than 3,000 people across the country died from it during 2017, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said her daughter was only 10 years old when she was hit by a distracted driver. 

“There needs to be accountability,” Escamilla said. “When we are driving and being distracted, we're not only impacting ourselves, we could potentially end up killing someone or injuring someone to the point where, like my daughter was in a hospital bed for three weeks and another month without [being] able to walk.”

But some lawmakers argued that cracking down on distracted driving can have adverse effects when people try to hide the fact that they’re using their cell phone. 

For example, Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, said people will sometimes hold their phones in their laps —which would be illegal under the new bill — and move their line of sight far from the windshield in order to look at it. 

“Pragmatically, this law will create more accidents, because people are not going to stop utilizing their phone, especially for legitimate reasons, like trying to follow a GPS and pick up their kids,” Anderegg said. 

The bill exempts law enforcement officers, and Anderegg argued it shouldn’t. He said, recently, he saw a law enforcement officer driving distracted on the freeway. 

“This guy had his phone to his ear, his other hand was on the computer, typing in something, and he must have been driving with his knees,” Anderegg said. “So I have a bit of a problem when we're saying, ‘Hey, this is all about safety, but we're not going to expressly make sure that this applies to all.’”

The bill needs one more vote in the Senate before going to the governor’s desk.

Sonja Hutson covers politics for KUER. Follow her on Twitter @SonjaHutson

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