Hang up phones, senator says
February 10, 2012
Utah Senator Ross Romero’s (D-Salt Lake City) proposed bill to ban teenage cell phone use while driving hits close to home in Summit County. Six months ago a teenager who was allegedly using her cell phone while driving struck a horseback rider, critically injuring the woman and killing the horse.
Senate Bill 128, which passed the Senate on Tuesday, would make it illegal for drivers under the age of 18 to talk, text, or use applications on their phones while driving. Romero said the only exceptions would be if a teenager is using the GPS or music features on the phone, calling their parents or reporting an emergency. Teenage drivers would not be allowed to talk on their phones even if they were using wireless devices such as a Bluetooth or speaker phone.
"I am hoping this bill gets passed because, as a parent, I want to reinforce the concerns involved with teenagers driving while distracted and remind them that it is against the law," Romero said. "This bill is not about raising money by giving tickets, it is to give kids one more reason to not use their cell phones while driving: because it is against the law."
Romero added that if a teenager is caught operating a cell phone while driving, there would be no long-term penalties.
"It would not add any points to their driving record and we are capping the penalty at $50," he said. "This is more about showing them that this is dangerous and against the law than creating a lasting effect on their driving record."
Summit County Attorney David Brickey said he supports the bill and its clear language compared to the current cell phone bill that only bans texting while driving but applies to all ages.
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"The reality is that the ability to drive requires a lot of concentration and focus," he said. "One purpose behind the bill is that the law right now requires actual texting so if a driver was checking the Internet or something on their phone technically that would not be in violation of the law. This bill would clean that up for teenage drivers."
Brickey estimated that under the current state law, drivers in Summit County who are caught texting while driving are fined around $250 and may have to post $310 for bail.
Summit County Sheriff Dave Edmunds said that while in theory the bill is a great idea and he supports it, in practice it will be very difficult to enforce and may cause potential problems for officers.
"It would be a nightmare for officers to try to pull someone over based on how old they appear to be," Edmunds said. "We will do our best to enforce it if it is passed and I think it could have a deterring effect, but it will be difficult to measure how great that effect will be. It is difficult for teens to be good drivers and the bill is well conceived, but what about the 16-year-olds who look 20 and the 21-year-olds who look 16. We would need to be cautious about infringing on people’s rights."
Romero said he was motivated to sponsor this bill after attending a senate committee last year regarding eliminating cell phone use while driving for everyone. The bill received very little support, but Romero said there were some teenagers who approached him during the process and fully supported the bill.
"Seeing how these teenagers were concerned about their peers and the safety of everyone else really motivated me to try to refocus the bill and encourage teenagers to drive safely and distraction free. I do not think this bill will lead to a law banning all drivers from using their phones because there does not seem to be a large appetite for that. It has been hard enough trying to get this bill passed."
Senate Bill 128 was received by the Utah House of Representatives on Tuesday and was first read on Wednesday. Romero said he is very hopeful that bill will pass the house and become law.