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New cellphone restrictions catch some Utah motorists by surprise

Published: Friday, April 4 2014 6:30 p.m. MDT

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SALT LAKE CITY — A new Utah law goes into effect in six weeks that may change the way Utahns drive, and many motorists haven't heard about it yet.

"To focus on the road, to focus on your driving, that's the main intent," said Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Todd Royce, referring to the new cellphone and mobile device restrictions that go into effect May 13.

For motorists who don't already use a hands-free system for cellphones when driving, it's time to look into that or plan to stop using mobile devices altogether when behind the wheel.

Texting while driving is already illegal. But current Utah law does not specifically ban motorists from doing all kinds of other distracting things with their smartphones — like searching the Web, picking a song or even dialing a phone number. Starting May 13, that's all illegal.

Utah will essentially have a handheld ban with a few exceptions. The new law bans motorists from using a cellphone or laptop to send texts, emails or instant messages. Drivers can't dial phone numbers, access the Web, take or view pictures or video, or enter data into a mobile device.

Motorists can, however, still use their hands to dial during a medical emergency or when reporting a safety hazard criminal activity. On the job law enforcement and emergency personnel are also allowed to use their hands.

Motorists will be allowed to use cellphones and other mobile devices using voice-operated technology and other systems that are physically or electronically integrated into the car, such as Bluetooth.

"It probably makes sense," said Brett Jenkins, of West Jordan. "You want to have your attention on the road when you're driving."

Jenkins said he doesn't think he'll have to change his driving habits very much.

"I don't dial or text a lot when I'm driving," he said.

Others will have to make some adjustments or run the risk of a ticket.

Like many people, Kyler Berezay plays music on his smartphone through his car stereo.

"If it's going to be against the law now to change what I listen to in the car, I could see a lot of people being opposed to that," Berezay said.

He said the texting ban alone was just fine, but the new restrictions go too far.

"I push a button to change the channel on the radio," Berezay said. "It's the same concept with the phone. So what's the difference?"

Motorists will still be able to use mobile devices to view GPS and other mapping programs. They can also still talk with phones up against their faces. But drivers have to use voice commands to dial the number.

"We feel it will save some lives out there on the roadway," Royce said.

Eleven people died last year on Utah roads in crashes attributed to distracted driving.

Troopers will be on the lookout for people manipulating their cellphones in any way.

"You'll probably see a lot of warnings and a lot of education done," Royce said of when the law first goes into effect.

But when troopers and other police officers start writing tickets, it's a class C misdemeanor with a fine up to $100, or a class B misdemeanor if you cause someone else to get hurt.

Even though motorists will still be able to use their phones with the new restrictions, Robert Hull, director of traffic and safety for the Utah Department of Transportation, said setting the phone aside while driving is always the safest practice.

"The ultimate responsible driving behavior is 100 percent focus on your driving," Hull said.

It is not illegal to use a headset while driving in Utah, so that's an option for some drivers, as long as they're not working the phone with their hands. Of course, drivers can always pull over or get off the road when it's safe to use the phone.

The Department of Public Safety and UDOT are considering various options for public education on the new restrictions.

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