Yes, we're serious, but we don't want to punish them to the point that they try to hide it and do it anyways. It's a good way to educate youth without costing them a fortune and without hammering them. —Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry
SALT LAKE CITY — When Utah teenagers want to hit the road this week, they are going to have to hang up their cellphones.
A new law prohibiting teens under 18 from using a cellphone while driving goes into effect on Tuesday.
The new law allows teen drivers to use their cellphones in cases of a medical emergency, to report a safety hazard or criminal activity, or if they are communicating with a parent. Teens caught violating the new law will be required to pay a $25 fine, but no points will be incurred on their driving records.
Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, sponsored HB103 and said the bill is a step in the right direction for safer, less distracted driving.
Perry said the law is a test model for all drivers and he likes to tell teenagers they have the “ability and brains” to be a safe driving example to others.
“As soon as you tell them that, they say, ‘You’re right, we can,’” he said.
When crafting the bill, Perry said he reflected on his adolescence. “I thought about what I could have lived with as a teenager,” he said.
He hopes parents will make teen violators pay the $25 fine and that it will impact their wallets just enough to make them not want to do it again.
“Yes, we’re serious, but we don’t want to punish them to the point that they try to hide it and do it anyways,” he said. “It’s a good way to educate youth without costing them a fortune and without hammering them.”
Jake Shapiro, a 17-year-old from Murray, admits he talks to his family and friends on the phone even though he knows it affects his driving.
“It’s definitely distracting,” he said. “Sometimes I even forget I’m driving.”
Another 17-year-old from Murray, Alex Butterfield, said changing his habit of answering the phone while driving is going to be difficult.
“If someone calls me, I’ll definitely answer it,” he said. “The only way around it is to keep it in the trunk.”
Annie Cowden, also 17, said she doesn’t text and drive but she does answer her phone.
“I’ll put it on speaker and put it on my lap,” she said. “If my mom calls me, I feel like I’ll still answer.”
A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that 69 percent of U.S. drivers ages 18-64 reported talking on their cellphones while driving during a 30-day period before the 2011 survey.
Every day in the U.S., more than 1,000 people are injured and nine people die in crashes with distracted drivers, according to the CDC.
Statistics released by the Utah Department of Public Safety showed almost 5,000 distracted driving caused crashes during 2011. About 22 percent of all distracted driving crashes in Utah during 2011 were caused by young drivers between the ages of 15 and 19.
AAA Utah spokeswoman Rolayne Fairclough said she advocated for stricter driving laws because distracted driving is such a big problem on the roads.
“It’s why I have been lobbying for (HB103) for many years now,” she said.
The new law brings awareness to teens and their parents, Fairclough said.
“We expect there to be dialogue with parents and their teen drivers,” she said. “Hopefully parents will say, ‘This is not something that we allow our family to do.’”
Fairclough said when they started the Graduated Driver Licensing Laws in the ’90s, some were skeptical the law brought no changes. Such laws allow 15-year-olds in Utah to have a learner’s permit and regulate driver’s education and practice driving hours. During their first six months, it also prohibits new drivers from having passengers under the age of 21 and keeps them off the road from midnight and 5 a.m. At 17, Utah teens are eligible for an unrestricted license.
“Since we’ve passed the first of these laws, we’ve seen teen fatal crashes decrease by at least 53 percent,” she said. “We know that these laws are effective and have saved lives.”
According to the AAA website, teens crash four times more often than adults, and car crashes are the leading cause of death in people ages 16-20.
Fairclough said one of the biggest effects of the new law will be to simply bring more attention to the issue.
“Awareness is raised about the difficulties for young drivers to master driving skills, and they need to do it in a distraction-free environment,” she said.
The new law is a primary offense, meaning officers don’t need any other reason to pull a teen over to cite them for cellphone use.
The cellphone ban does not mention texting and driving, which Perry described as a “different animal altogether.”
Texting and driving for any age, he said, is a misdemeanor and can increase to a felony if injuries or death result. The texting law is also a primary offense and includes things like Facebooking and emailing.
Contributing: Jed Boal