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Distracted drivers beware

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A bill that would not only penalize the use of a cell phone but other distractions while driving has been advanced by a committee of lawmakers.

The only opposition was by those who wanted to make distracted a primary offense rather than a secondary offense.

HB67, which was endorsed by the Transportation Interim Committee on Wednesday, goes a step beyond legislation proposed last year that penalized cell phone use.

This bill includes other forms of distracted driving, such as attending to personal hygiene, eating, drinking and smoking. And it doesn't penalize those who have mastered the art of multi-tasking.

A fine of up to $50 could only be assessed as a secondary infraction — meaning the driver must have been pulled over for some other violation.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville, said 4,400 people died in the United States in the last year as a result of distracted drivers. While he doesn't know how many of those were in Utah, he said one is too many.

"This is a problem that is growing because of our desire to use our time more efficiently," he said.

While 40 states are considering some form of distracted driving legislation, the only state enforcing such a law is New York, which requires cell phone users to use hands-free devices while driving.

But Holdaway doesn't want to limit it to cell phones. "The problem is distracted drivers. It's not whether I'm distracted by combing my hair or whether I'm distracted by using my cell phone," he said.

Ruth Hardy Schmidt testified in support of the bill, saying drivers "need to be aware that their primary attention should be to the road." Schmidt's parents were killed last year by a driver who was reaching for her cell phone and ran a red light.

In Sandy, 21 people have been cited since the city passed an ordinance in August that makes distracted driving a secondary offense. Schmidt said other communities will start to pass similar laws and that a Utah law would prevent patchworks of city and county ordinances regarding distracted driving.

Holdaway did face some opposition, although it wasn't from those against penalizing distracted driving.

Instead, Rep. Gerry Adair, R-Roy, argued that distracted driving should become a primary infraction.

But Rep. Marda Dillree, R-Farmington, and Holdaway agreed the bill will have a much better chance of passing if distracted driving is a secondary offense.

E-mail: lculler@desnews.com