The Provo and Orem area has among the highest rates of distracted driving accidents in the state, said Orem Police spokesman Lt. Nick Thomas.

The Utah Highway Safety Office recorded 1,128 car accidents caused by distracted driving in Utah County in 2021, including 622 injuries and two deaths. There were a total of 5,484 distracted driving accidents in the state of Utah in 2021.

"You look down at your phone, and that is as bad as drunk driving," said Thomas. "A lot of the accidents we see here in town are accidents that could be prevented by people not being on their phones."

Orem and Provo police are increasing their distracted driving enforcement to lower the amount of local car accidents, they announced in a Facebook post last week. Their efforts will likely extend through the summer, with periodic evaluations to adjust their patrolling methods.

"The number of accidents involving distracted drivers has increased over the last several years in the Orem and Provo area," the post said. "Please remember to keep your hands on the steering wheel and eyes on the road while you are driving, removing all distractions you can."

The Utah Department of Health says that a car crash occurs in Utah every eight minutes, and a person is injured in a crash every 20 minutes.

Thomas implored drivers to exercise self-control against distracted driving.

"Wait until you get somewhere safer to answer the phone," Thomas said. "If it's that important, pull over to the side of the road and take your phone call or return your text message, but most things can wait until you're at your next destination."

Leslee's story

"Are you precious to someone?" That's what Provo resident Kaye Nelson asks when she rolls up at a stoplight next to someone who is texting while driving.

She tells drivers, "Then you need to put your phone away and not look at it while you're driving."

Nelson's passion for distraction-free driving came after her longtime friends David and Leslee Henson were hit by a texting driver.

On March 4, 2013, the Hensons were on a walk along Dixie Drive in St. George. Carla Brennan was texting on her way to work and speeding at 60 mph in a 40-mph zone, according to investigators. She rear-ended another car, which veered out of control and onto the sidewalk, hitting the Hensons.

David Henson pushed his wife out of the way, Nelson said. He was killed on impact.

Leslee Henson was flown to Utah Valley Hospital in Provo, where her head trauma was treated with more than 5,000 stitches and staples. She had also sustained back and neck fractures and was put in a neck brace.

Leslee Henson receives 5,000 stitches and staples after being hit by a distracted driver on March 4, 2013. Distracted driving accidents are on the rise in Provo and Orem.
Leslee Henson receives 5,000 stitches and staples after being hit by a distracted driver on March 4, 2013. Distracted driving accidents are on the rise in Provo and Orem. | Family photo

"She had a scar that started in the corner of one eye and went all the way to the back of her head," Nelson said. "She had gravel in her scalp, and they had to shave her head, and her eyes were black. Her head was basically like a watermelon that had been dropped and split open."

After her recovery, Leslee Henson spent the next 10 years speaking out against distracted driving. She gave presentations about distracted driving at BYU, local high schools, drivers ed classes and public safety meetings before dying from breast and liver cancer on Feb. 20.

Henson also worked closely with Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, to promote legislation against distracted driving.

Current Utah laws make it illegal to use your phone while on the road but allow drivers to use hands-free devices, such as those with Bluetooth connectivity. Moss's distracted driving bill, HB336, would have enforced stricter consequences for distracted driving.

"My bills have all had the same intent — to make holding a phone and talking or texting a primary offense," Moss said. "What good is a law if it can't be enforced unless you break another law, especially when it comes to driving, when an accident can cause serious injuries or death?"

Moss's urgency comes from knowing that the sooner legislation is passed, the sooner tragedies like the Hensons' can be prevented.

"I remind people that it took 10 years to make the seat belt law a primary offense," Moss said. "How many lives were lost in those 10 years?"

But Moss's bill was not prioritized in the most recent legislative session, and it died in committee on March 3.

Nelson said she saw a disconnect between legislators' words and actions.

"We would talk to a lot of legislators who would be very adamant that 'Oh yes, we need (to be) hands-free,' and they tell us stories about 'I was on the freeway and somebody was texting and they rear-ended me,'" Nelson said. "But when it came down to it, they voted against it."

Moss expressed a similar frustration.

"It is discouraging when both the majority leader, Mike Schultz, and Rules Chair Rep. Casey Snider wouldn't even let the bill go to a committee for a hearing," Moss said.

Nelson said she and Leslee Henson's daughter Haley Warner are adamant about continuing Leslee's work in future legislative sessions.

"We'll keep working at it," Nelson said. "It's going to save many, many lives."