Senate bill aims to toughen Utah texting-while-driving law
Pat Wellenbach, AP
SALT LAKE CITY — David Henson's wife and children launched a campaign to warn people about the dangers of texting while driving after he was hit and killed on a morning walk in St. George a year ago next Tuesday.
His widow, Leslee, has spoken in schools and met with police agencies. His three children — Haley Warner, Lindsey Mackay and Blake Henson — started StopTheTextsStopTheWrecks.blogspot.com. The family joined the St. George police in a multimedia public awareness effort called "Heads up, Thumbs up."
"We never thought it would have to be us to speak out on this," Warner said.
And now they have a state senator proposing to toughen the state's distracted driving law.
Sen. Steve Urquhart's bill, released Wednesday, wouldn't prohibit adults from talking on cellphones while driving, but it could change how they handle all types of electronic gadgets while behind the wheel.
SB253 would remove exceptions in the law for making or receiving phone calls and using a handheld wireless device for global positioning or navigation services while driving. Essentially, a driver would have to pull over to tap a phone number but could still drive and talk.
"Let's beef up the law to make sure that it deals with any and all manipulation of a device because it really doesn't matter whether you're typing in a text message or typing in an address, eyes still aren’t on the road at that point," the St. George Republican said.
Texting while driving is against the law in Utah, and the Legislature last year banned drivers under 18 years old from talking on cellphones while driving.
The bill would allow the use of hands-free or voice operated technology, whether or not it's physically or electronically integrated into the vehicle.
Urquhart said Utah's texting while driving law is hard to enforce because drivers who police pull over could say they were making a phone call or doing something other than texting.
"If police see you down manipulating the keys of your device it will no longer be a defense to say, 'I was dialing a number or I was putting in an address for directions,'" he said.
David and Leslee Henson were walking on the sidewalk along Dixie Drive in St. George March 4 when a car that was rear-ended by an allegedly texting driver slammed into them, killing 57-year-old David almost immediately as he pushed his wife away from the impact.
Leslee Henson suffered fractures in her back and neck and required more than 5,000 stitches and minor facial reconstruction surgery.
Washington County prosecutors charged a 50-year-old woman with automobile homicide involving using a handheld wireless communication device while driving. The case is pending in court.
Warner said she sees Urquhart's bill as good step toward getting cellphones out of drivers' hands.
"I just think cellphones are so stinkin' dangerous in cars," she said. "A lot of people don’t even know that texting is against the law. This is good. It will just have to be enforced."
St. George Police Capt. Gordon McCracken said the texting while driving law is difficult to enforce because officers don't know for sure what drivers are doing when they have their heads downs.
"We'd like to see the changes. I think it makes the whole thing less confusing for everybody and I think it's fair," he said, adding that the department consulted with Urquhart on the bill.
As part of the "Heads up, Thumbs up" campaign, St. George patrol offices have targeted texting while driving. They issued written warnings until the end of January but are now handing out tickets.
McCracken said ideally he'd like to see everyone go hands-free.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said she was not aware of the bill, but when it comes to regulating cellphone use in cars, the Legislature "hasn't really been interested in doing a lot of that."
"It's an issue of personal responsibility, being responsible for your behavior in your car and being responsible if you cause problems, too," Lockhart said, noting lawmakers already have the ability to make stops for distracted driving.
"Law enforcement has tools already if they see you texting, talking, makeup-ing, eating, all of those things," she said.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche
Twitter: dennisromboy; DNewsPolitics
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