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In our opinion: Habits die hard

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 2:07 p.m. MDT

Utah's new law banning teenagers from using cellphones while driving is a good thing. The legislation encourages young people to drive responsibly and minimize the risk they pose to others. It also allows teens to use phones in medical emergencies or when there is an imminent safety issue, as well to communicate with their parents. (shutterstock) Utah's new law banning teenagers from using cellphones while driving is a good thing. The legislation encourages young people to drive responsibly and minimize the risk they pose to others. It also allows teens to use phones in medical emergencies or when there is an imminent safety issue, as well to communicate with their parents. (shutterstock)

Utah's new law banning teenagers from using cellphones while driving is a good thing. The legislation encourages young people to drive responsibly and minimize the risk they pose to others. It also allows teens to use phones in medical emergencies or when there is an imminent safety issue, as well to communicate with their parents. All in all, it's a common-sense measure designed to teach teens a lesson that adults need to learn, too.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 1,000 people every day are injured in the United States in accidents involving distracted drivers. In Utah, distracted driving caused 5,000 accidents last year alone, and only 22 percent of those accidents involved drivers aged 15-19. That leaves a whopping 78 percent of distracted driving accidents caused by grownups too preoccupied with their cell phones to pay enough attention to the road.

Utah already prohibits texting while driving. But many studies have demonstrated that any cellphone use while operating a moving vehicle presents an unacceptable risk. Seven years ago, the University of Utah published a study that motorists who use their cellphones are just as impaired as drunk drivers are. Notably, the U. holds that there is no difference between handheld cellphone use and "hands free" devices in term of the distraction they create.

Many believe, therefore, that the law ought to reflect that reality. That's why several states, along with the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands ban almost all cellphone use while behind the wheel, while thirty-nine have banned texting. Dozens of countries across the world have done the same.

So why doesn't Utah follow suit?

Part of the problem is that such bans come with better intentions than results. A recent survey conducted by the Department of Transportation has shown that such bans have not succeeded in reducing car cellphone use. Nearly 70 percent of all Americans use their phones in their cars, regardless of state restrictions. Consequently, the number of accidents involving cellphones hasn't changed much, either. Still, laws can help reinforce good behavior and send messages about what society considers unacceptable.

Cellphone use in cars has been an acceptable cultural norm for a long time, and old habits die hard. But habits can change, with or without legislation. Each of us needs to recognize the importance of staying off the phone when we're behind the wheel. To protect public safety, it's imperative that we make this change, even if that change comes only one driver at a time.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company