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Utah Legislature: Bills seek to make talking on a cell phone while driving a crime for teens

SALT LAKE CITY — And now an experiment for people who pride themselves in their ability to multitask.

Sit down with a pen and paper and write the phrase "quick brown fox jumps over the lazy sleeping dog" while counting backward from 100.

It's hard to do without messing up or pausing to think.

Morgan Brown, a driver education teacher at Alta High School, makes his students try the exercise before he begins discussing distracted driving.

"A lot of the kids say, 'Wow, the brain only functions on one of these things at a time,' " Brown said. "And then we have a discussion about talking on the cell phone and how the focus is not on driving. We hit it pretty hard."

Brown said he believes that most of his students avoid talking on their phones while driving. For everyone else, there are two bills before the state Legislature that would make it a crime for people under age 18 to use cell phones while driving.

SB113, sponsored by Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, and HB237, sponsored by Rep. Phil Riesen, D-Salt Lake City, seek to prohibit minors from talking on cell phones while driving, except in emergencies. Violators would be cited with an infraction, unless they are in an accident, in which case they would be charged with a class C misdemeanor.

The bills are identical. Romero and Riesen decided to run the same bill in hopes that one would get passed into law. For now, Romero's bill, having been approved by the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday, is further along than Riesen's, which is in the House Rules Committee awaiting a vote.

Alta High School sophomore Eric Marks, who is taking driver education this quarter, said most students at his school are aware of the bill. Opinions are mixed, he said.

"I think it's kind of good because a lot of teenagers are just starting out," he said. "They are adjusting to driving."

The frontal cortex of the brain — the part responsible for multitasking and good decision-making — isn't fully developed until a person is in their mid-20s, said David Strayer, a University of Utah psychology professor who has been studying distracted driving for the past 10 years.

Strayer is part of the U. research team that made national headlines in 2003 when it concluded that driving while talking on the phone was as dangerous as driving drunk. It's the actual conversation that makes it more dangerous than, say, listening to the radio while driving, he said.

During Tuesday's committee meeting, Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, read an e-mail from a constituent who opposes the bill.

"I'm assuming as a parent this is just another opportunity for law enforcement to harass and profile young drivers?" Van Tassell read from the e-mail. "How would you respond to that?"

"Anytime there's interaction between law enforcement and the community, there's a risk there's a pretext to stop," Romero said. "But I think the concern for our youth far outweighs the concerns of harassment."

e-mail: lhancock@desnews.com Twitter: laurahancock