SALT LAKE CITY — Megan McCombs and Abbey Park aren't driving yet, but they know even as passengers that drivers and cellphones don't mix.
The two 15-year-old East High School students said that they've felt fear when their peers picked up the phone while driving. And their anxiety goes beyond their fellow teenagers to all motorists using cellphones.
"Whenever they're on the phone, it kind of freaks you out," Park said.
"They make me nervous," McCombs added.
A proposed Senate bill, SB128, sponsored by Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, would ban the use of cellphones while driving for those under the age of 18, with an exception for emergency situations or talking with parents or legal guardians.
But Richard Moody, a Sandy resident whose children are grown, said cellphones are not just a problem for teenagers. He said restrictions on their use would be good practice for everyone.
"It doesn't matter how young you are or how old you are, what's good for one is good for all," he said. "It's just a dangerous situation."
McCombs, Park and Moody agreed the cellphone ban should be applied to all drivers, a stance supported by the National Transportation Safety Board, which urged all states in December to crack down on use of the devices.
Handheld devices are currently banned or restricted while driving in 9 states, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Thirty states ban cell phone use by novice drivers.
Romero said a bill that would have applied to all Utahns was proposed several years ago but was met with little support in committee hearings. He credited a group of teenagers who came to support that bill with providing the "inspiration" for the current legislation.
"These individuals are just learning to operate motor vehicles," Romero said. "They don't have experience behind the wheel, they are the group that is most engaged in cellphone use, either texting or talking, so giving them a couple of years until they're 18 and off to college to focus on driving made a lot of sense."
The bill is part of a larger public information initiative meant to encourage more responsible driving and would levy only small penalties — a fine of $50 and no impact on an individual's driving record. A violation would be classified as an infraction and would not carry points that could be assessed against one's driver license.
"I've heard from several parents who really like the idea — that it would be against the law and yet the penalties would be relatively small," Romero said.
Tracy Jones, a Paradise mother of a 17-year-old boy, said she has mixed feelings about the proposal. She said the fewer distractions for young drivers the better, but she questioned how it could be enforced.
"I could just see (teenagers) being more diligent if they see a cop — putting the phone down, but I don't know that it would keep them from talking on the phone," she said.
She said parents end up paying the fines and they're already the ones urging safety.
"Teenagers, you can tell them things all you want, but they're teenagers. They think it won't happen to me. I won't get caught," Jones said.
Earlier this year, the American Automobile Association pointed to curbing distracted driving and increasing teen driver safety as its top legislative priorities. It was in response to a 2010 study conducted by AAA and Seventeen magazine among 2,000 teens ages 16 to 19. It found that 86 percent of teenagers, both boys and girls, reported driving while distracted. The teens said the distraction is only for a brief moment, and they believe they can multitask and not get hurt.
Joren Carlson, a Junior at West High School, said he understands why those in his age group are the focus of the legislation.
"I think (the proposed law) cuts one factor out of distracted driving," he said. "I think that's legitimate because teenagers are more likely to be distracted while driving so it's good to cut out at least one factor."
But his friend and fellow West High junior Jonah Katz, said he thinks it's not enough to simply focus on teenagers.
"I think that it would be more appropriate to get rid of talking (on a cell phone) and driving altogether. I think that's still very dangerous whether or not you're 18," Katz said. "Regardless of age, it's still a hazard."
Ultimately, the goal is to keep teenage drivers safe, Romer said. He cited the Jan. 14 death of Taylor Sauer, an 18-year-old college freshman at Utah State University who was killed when her car collided into a slow-moving semitrailer. Her family believes messages she sent on Facebook minutes before the crash confirmed the role of cellphones and social media in Sauer's death.
"It's really about saying, it’s against the law, it makes good policy, you're just learning how to drive and driving accidents are a leading cause of death for our youth," Romero said. "I'd like to see (teenagers) grow into adults and have productive successful lives and so if this is something we can do to help them be mindful of the importance of driving ... I thought we should work on it."32 comments on this story
Kim Wallace, one in a line of many parents arriving at East High School to pick up her two sons, called the bill smart, but questioned its origins.
"It's a good idea, but I really think it's a shame that we have to have the government regulate these things," she said.
"It's common sense," her son, Trevor, 17, said.
The bill is scheduled for discussion Friday by the Senate Transportation and Public Utilities and Technology Committee.
Contributing: Peter Samore, Mike Anderson