Jay Evensen: Will Utahns be smart enough to get around the new texting law?

Published: Wednesday, May 14 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

This is the week we begin to learn whether Utah drivers are smart enough to claim they were merely looking at their phone’s GPS app when an officer pulls them over on suspicion of texting while driving.

Pat Wellenbach, AP

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This is the week we begin to learn whether Utah drivers are smart enough to claim they were merely looking at their phone’s GPS app when an officer pulls them over on suspicion of texting while driving.

That would get them off, but I’m guessing most people who do such things are too, well, distracted to pay attention to the news.

Before this week, all a driver had to do was deny texting. “Officer, I was merely changing my Facebook status” was good enough. Now, the allowable excuses are pretty much down to one — using a GPS.

The irony, of course, is that looking at a GPS app while driving is likely just as dangerous as texting.

“There are lots of things we could ban if we wanted to be perfectly safe,” Sen. Stephen Urquhart acknowledged when I reached him by phone this week. A Republican from St. George, he was the sponsor of the law that took effect this week — a law that punishes people with a $100 fine if police catch them driving and using their phones for anything other than talking or looking at a virtual map of the street on which they are weaving.

“The GPS exemption is a big loophole,” Urquhart acknowledged. But it did not come about for political reasons. It wasn’t something he had to include in the bill in order to secure votes. “There were others who wanted more,” he said of his legislative colleagues. “I’m content with this.”

Urquhart’s reasoning is that he believes it’s also dangerous to have people driving around lost, slowing down to look at street signs or doing other obnoxious maneuvers we tend to do when searching for the right way.

And, let’s face it, looking at a GPS isn’t much different from looking at a map, and who hasn’t done that?

Not that a weaving map-reader headed your way is supposed to make you feel any better than a weaving GPS-reader.

As for talking on the phone: “My thinking is that we often talk and drive. That doesn’t take our eyes off the road.”

If there is such a thing as a First World problem, distracted driving would qualify. It is the latest plague to hit roadways, fueled by a combination of wealth and a general obsession with instant communication and constant entertainment. But it also should be kept in perspective.

Traffic fatalities nationwide have dropped to levels not seen since the late 1940s. In Utah, we had 217 deaths in 2012, which was the lowest number since 1959. That rose slightly last year to 219. But of course it is little consolation to the relative of one of the deceased to know fatalities are down. Any death is one too many, and any death from distracted driving is galling in its careless disregard.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says 71 percent of young people admit to composing text messages while driving, while 78 percent admit to having read such a message. Some will justify this by saying they hold the phone up to eye level in order to keep one eye on the road, which is about as ridiculous as it sounds.

The question, however, is whether Utah’s new law will be the thing that makes us all safer.

“I’m extremely confident,” Urquhart said. “I mean, look at the public awareness this is getting. Look at the number of media interviews I’m doing. Obviously, this is something people care about. That’s the point of laws like this, to change behavior.”

About eight years ago, researchers at the U. of U. concluded that merely talking on the phone, even hands-free, made drivers about as safe as if they were drunk. But then, texting drivers are likely as safe as drunk drivers who also have passed out.

“I’m not completely confident we have struck the right balance,” Urquhart said, adding that lawmakers may have to fine-tune the law in the future.

This is a great age. Time travelers from the 1950s would be astounded to know people today carry devices that instantly connect them to a vast store of all the world’s information. But they might be dismayed to know many people use the devices to watch cat videos and send instant telegrams to their friends all day.

Humans are complex. That makes changing their behavior equally complex. Unless someone invents a GPS app that can map out exactly how to do that, I’ll remain a hopeful skeptic.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.

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