SALT LAKE CITY — The number of people stopped for texting while driving on Utah's highways has increased sharply since lawmakers expanded the law to ban dialing phones or checking email behind the wheel, according to new numbers from the Utah Highway Patrol.
Troopers pulled over 692 people during the first six months after the law went into effect in May. That's a fourfold increase over the six-month period from May to October last year, when 166 people were stopped.
The change makes the law easier for troopers enforce, said Sgt. Todd Royce.
"We would stop someone and they would say, 'I wasn't texting, I was just calling a friend,'" Royce said. While people are still allowed talk on the phone and search for directions, the law now bans other handheld phone use while the car is in motion.
Most of the 2014 stops came after troopers pulled up alongside drivers and saw them using the phone, Royce said. Troopers generally stop people who are engrossed in phone use, not those who make an occasional tap. Royce said he's expecting the numbers, which include both people who were ticketed and those who got off with a warning, to increase again next year.
David Strayer, a University of Utah professor who studies distracted driving, said the increase shows the law is working.
"The people who are swerving, you used to think they were drunk, but now they're probably doing something with their smartphone," he said. The risk of a crash starts to increase when drivers take their eyes off the road for 2.5 seconds, he said. The average text message takes 4 seconds to type.
"If you're not looking where you're going, you're going to crash," he said.
Strayer said people in their 30s and 40s are more likely to text and drive than younger drivers who have been consistently and emphatically told to keep their fingers off the phone.
People caught tapping away behind the wheel can face a $100 fine, though that could increase to $1,000 if there's an accident and someone is hurt.
Kara Macek, spokesman for the Governor's Highway Safety Association, called handheld bans a step in the right direction but said all cellphone use behind the wheel is distracting.
"We prefer that people just don't use their phones when they're driving regardless," she said. Even talking on hands-free devices can be distracting, she said.
Though no state bans all cellphone use while driving, 14 states outlaw all use of hand-held devices including talking, according to the Highway Safety Association. Texting while driving is banned in 44 states and Washington, D.C.