Cellphones and driving: Is focusing on teenagers enough?

Published: Wednesday, April 3 2013 9:25 p.m. MDT

Alexie Baugh talks Wednesday, April 3, 2013, in West Jordan about finding out her husband, Curtis, and children Abby and Max were struck by a 17-year-old driver who ran a red light while talking on her cellphone.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

WEST JORDAN — Alexie Baugh clearly remembers the night her family's life was changed forever.

It was Sunday, Aug. 1, 2010. Baugh was pregnant and feeling ill, and her husband offered to take their two young children to his parents' home for dinner. She called at 8 p.m., and he reported they were watching a movie. In a second call, closer to 10 p.m., he said they were heading out the door.

Around 11 p.m. came a knock at the front door, and assuming it was her husband having problems with his key or garage opener, she opened it. Instead, she was met by a police officer.

Curtis Baugh, who was flown by medical helicopter to University Hospital and placed in a medically induced coma, remembers none of this. It was police reports and witness statements that told them the story of how the 17-year-old girl, calling to tell her parents she was late for curfew, ran a red light and T-boned the car carrying Curtis, 29, Abby, 4, and Max, 2.

"She was trying to do the right thing, saying, 'I'm late for curfew. I'm on my way,'" Curtis said.

"One thing the police officers did tell me was that there was no question who was at fault," Alexie said.

On Wednesday, Gov. Gary Herbert signed HB103 into law, a bill that prohibits teenagers under 18 from talking on cellphones unless they are calling in medical emergencies, road hazards or criminal acts, or speaking with parents or legal guardians.

Some think the law unfairly targets teenagers. Others, like Curtis Baugh, say it doesn't go far enough.

"Let's get people off of their cellphones," he said. "I think it's a safe bet. I think let's just make it straight across the board. I keep thinking that if there's something good that can come from all of this, let's make it happen. Let's do it."

Abby and Max suffered relatively minor injuries and were released from the hospital the day after the crash. Their father was not so lucky. He spent weeks in a coma, undergoing surgeries and was left partially paralyzed on the left side of his body. He has regained much of his mobility, but still predominantly uses a wheelchair and can't use his left arm.

Curtis can't drive due to a loss of vision in his left eye, but the thought of driving, he said, "scares me to death."

In a March morbidity and mortality weekly report, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released survey data that showed 69 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 64 had used a cellphone while driving during a 30-day time frame.

Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, who sponsored HB103, said recent surveys conducted in Utah indicate that 89 percent of Utahns agree that talking on cellphones while driving is dangerous.

But when asked whether a law should be implemented against the practice, the answer was a resounding "no."

Still, Perry said he got a lot of questions about why the legislation focused solely on teenagers.

"The overwhelming majority of people I got said, 'Why are you just doing this for teenagers? You have to do this for everybody,'" he said. "I talked to plenty of representatives, but I knew most (lawmakers) couldn't vote for an out-and-out ban. It's difficult to run legislation you know is going to fail."  

Perry said there is a special concern about teenage drivers, though, citing data that reported that while teenagers make up only 8 percent of drivers on the roadways, they are involved in 24 percent of crashes.

"It has to with inexperience on the roadway, but there are lots of reasons teenagers are getting into crashes," he said. "If we can take away one of those things that is more distracting, then we're perfecting their skills as a driver before they introduce bad habits into their driving."

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