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Utah lawmakers give thumbs-down to 'hands-free cellphone bill'

FILE - Representative Carol Spackman Moss is the keynote speaker Friday, July 29, 2011 at a rally for schools in the Main Salt Lake City Library.
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers hit the brakes on a bill that would have given police the authority to pull over motorists for using their hands to answer phone calls while driving.

Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, sponsored HB64 — calling it the "hands-free cellphone bill" — and presented it Friday to the House Transportation Committee.

It's already illegal for motorists to hold a phone to their ear to take a phone call while driving, Moss said, discussing how Utah's laws for cellphone use while driving have developed over the years.

A law was passed in 2007 prohibiting handheld telephone use while driving, though was only enforceable if a moving traffic violation was committed as a result, Moss said. In 2009, texting and sending emails while operating a moving vehicle were made illegal too.

Then in 2014, the no-texting law was updated to include most other cellphone use, except for GPS apps and hands-free voice communication.

Today, talking on the phone while holding it is illegal, but it is a secondary offense, meaning police cannot pull over motorists for holding their phones or talking into them while they drive.

"This bill really just does one thing … and that is make it a primary offense," Moss said.

Cellphones were the leading driver distraction in 2016, she said, adding that 15 states have passed similar "hands-free laws."

Terryl Warner, director of the Victim Services Division at the Cache County Attorney's Office, spoke in favor of the bill, saying driving while using a cellphone is the equivalent of driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent and creates a four-fold increase of the odds of getting into an accident.

"When you are driving, there are three different types of distractions: We have cognitive, manual, and we have visual," Warner said.

Cognitive distraction, she said, means brain function is not really present in the moment but is off wandering somewhere else. Manual means a driver's hands are distracted from the wheel, and visual means their eyes are not on the road, Warner said.

"When you are texting and driving, you have all three of those distractions," she said. When holding a phone to your ear and talking while driving, "you are still missing the cognitive and the manual."

Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, pushed back against the bill, asking whether it dealt with other forms of distraction, such as "eating a hamburger in a car or having kids in a car."

Moss said those distractions likely would fall under the statue if they resulted in another offense.

Fawson also asked how the bill would impact low-income families. Moss said motorists have the option of using speaker phone or buying a bluetooth device, adding that they're as cheap as $11.

Fawson pointed out that driving with a cellphone is comparable to drunken driving.

"When you're drinking, they don't pull you over for drinking," he said. "They pull you over because you're … weaving in and out of the lanes."

If a cellphone is causing someone to weave in and out of the lanes, law enforcement already can pull over that motorist under Utah law.

Utah Highway Patrol Col. Michael Rapich said the bill would make enforcement of distracted driving laws much easier.

The committee voted 3-5 against the bill, likely ending its journey this session.