House committee supports fines for teens using phones while driving

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 13 2013 6:35 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Taylor Sauer knew her cellphone was distracting her driving.

In making a late-night commute from her parents' home in Caldwell, Idaho, to Utah State University in January 2012, the 18-year-old sent her haunting final text: "I can't discuss this matter now. Driving and Facebooking is not safe. ha ha."

Moments later, she collided with a semitrailer at 80 mph. She was killed instantly.

Sauer's death is a tragic example of how teens' daily habits can be life-threatening. Cellphone use is the second leading driver distraction in Utah, accounting for nearly 14 percent of the 4,860 distracted driving crashes, according to the Utah Department of Public Safety.

Utah lawmakers are working to reduce such hazards. A bill that would fine drivers under age 18 as much as $50 for talking on the phone while driving passed the House Law enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee unanimously on Wednesday.

Legislators have attempted to pass similar laws in the past. Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, has on several occasions proposed bills banning teens from talking on their phones while driving. Former Sen. Ross Romero, another Democrat, also has sponsored bills that called for fining teens for the same offense. None have passed.

But Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, is hopeful HB103 will fare better than its predecessors.

Under the bill, teen drivers would not be violating the law when calling in medical emergencies, road hazards or criminal acts, or speaking with parents or legal guardians. In addition, no points would go on a teen's driving record for such violations.

Dan Dual, with the Weber County 9/12 project, suggested the bill be altered to allow teens to use a hands-free device.

Perry, a Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant, said studies conducted by the University of Utah indicate that those using handheld devices show to be as impaired as a driver at the legal limit of drunken driving.

According to a 2012 survey by the Utah Department of Public Safety, 85 percent of Utahns support a law banning cellphone use for drivers under age 18.

Timmy Menditto, of Provo, said he isn't sure the legislation would make much of a difference.

"This would be almost impossible to enforce," Menditto said. "Most teens think any conversation on a cellphone is an emergency."

But it's a step in the right direction, said Taylor Couvreur, a 28-year-old Salt Lake native currently living in Alameda, Calif., where it's illegal to talk and drive at any age.

“I'd love to see Utah put this into code, too,” he said. “People follow this law. They pull over and stay in parking lots to talk on their phones.”

For Couvreur, it makes a difference on the road.

“I feel safer," he said. "If my phone rings, I don't answer it because I don't even have that option. In Utah, I would opt to answer it every time because I was given that choice.”

Aubrielle Hamling, of Pleasant Grove, agrees.

“There are a lot of people over the age of 18 that are just as bad at talking and driving as younger people,” she said.

Clay Sauer, the father of the teen who died while texting, said he would prefer to look at a hands-free bill for all ages. 

"It is not just a problem with those under 18," he said. "It is just as much a problem with college-age (drivers) or even older adults." 

Kevin Morgan, a Highland father of five, said he supports the bill.

“My kids aren't supposed to use their phones while they drive,” Morgan said. “This piece of legislation goes right in line with my parenting.”

As guardian of 12-year-old Neko, Sherry Jardine of West Valley City said she supports the bill. 

“When he's old enough to drive, I don't want him in accidents that could injure him or someone else,” Jardine said.

Jardine, a health teacher at Hunter High School, said she talks to her students about the dangers of using a cellphone while driving.

“Teens aren't seasoned in driving,” she said. “They are so easily distracted, and enforcing no talking while driving would help them build good habits early on.”

Jardine said she has learned to apply her own instruction in her daily life.

“It was a hard habit to break,” she said. “As an adult, I used to think I could do that, but I realized it's not safe for anybody.”

Jardine also has noticed her grandson is always watching her.

“He's seen me pull to the side of the road to text, and he now grabs my phone and answers it if it rings while I'm driving,” Jardine said.

Texting and driving already is unlawful in Utah. “Careless driving” — committing a moving violation under distraction of a handheld cellphone or other device — is also against the law.

The bill will now go on to the full House for consideration.

E-mail: rlowry@desnews.com

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