The Utah Legislature again will consider a measure to make driving with a cellphone in-hand a primary offense, allowing police to pull over someone suspected of being distracted by a handheld device. Expect opposition based on a number of concerns, but this is a move objective data and common sense suggest is worthy of a law.
Fifteen states have passed laws similar to the one proposed by Rep. Carol Spackman-Moss, D-Holladay, and evidence is strong the laws have reduced the number of injury crashes caused by preoccupied drivers. In Utah, such collisions are substantial.
In 2016, 5,748 collisions were caused by distracted drivers, resulting in more than 3,300 injuries and 27 deaths, according to the Utah Highway Safety Office. Even a modest reduction in the number of collisions as a result of tougher laws would outweigh any inconvenience to drivers who believe it’s important to stay physically tethered to their phone.
Statistics from Utah and elsewhere suggest harsher penalties do indeed result in fewer offenses. In 2007, Utah passed its first law banning cellphone use while driving, but only as a secondary offense. Even so, the number of distracted driving incidents fell by about 24 percent the following year.
But in the subsequent six years, rates climbed again and now account for about 10 percent of all collisions involving property damage and injury. National research also suggests a direct connection between tougher laws, and the publicity surrounding them, and safer driving.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration commissioned studies on the effects of laws passed in four states during the period of 2010-2013. In those states — California, New York, Connecticut and Delaware — a ban on cellphone use while driving, along with public service advertising on the law, resulted in a significant drop in observed incidents of distracted driving.
Even though Spackman-Moss’ House Bill 64 could likely result in fewer collisions, it will face opposition on grounds ranging from concerns it isn’t tough enough, to worries it infringes on individual freedoms. Some road safety organizations believe the law could make streets dangerous by leading motorists to believe driving while using hands-free devices, which the law would allow, is OK. Studies suggest this is just as dangerous as handling a phone.
The problem with banning hands-free use by way of Bluetooth or speakerphone is that it’s difficult for police to enforce by observation. On the other hand, a driver looking down with one or two hands off the wheel is fairly easy to spot.
Ultimately, though, lawmakers should ask themselves whether it’s better to allow things to continue as they are, with distracted driving contributing to collisions, or to pass something that would give officers a powerful tool.
Any momentary distraction behind the wheel is precarious business, though we are certain many Utahns would acknowledge it as a common sight. A change in the current law, well-publicized and well-enforced, would bring benefits that overshadow any anxiety caused by temporarily ignoring a text message or a social media post while maneuvering through traffic.