Is it time for Utah to toughen its distracted driving law?

Jul 8, 2022, 10:15 PM | Updated: Jul 9, 2022, 12:12 am

SALT LAKE CITY — Before she pulls out of her Holladay driveway, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss places her phone in a cupholder, where it stays put until she arrives at the store, the state Capitol or wherever else she’s headed.

“I always say, ‘Two hands on the wheel, both eyes on the road,’” the Holladay Democrat said.

She has long pushed for more Utahns to adopt the same mantra. Moss sponsored bills four years in a row to limit hand-held use of cellphones behind the wheel, but each one stalled at the state Capitol.

Now, with more people perishing on Utah’s roads during the pandemic than any other time in the last 20 years, Moss says she’s thinking about bringing back the bill.

Deaths on Utah’s roads reached a record high in the pandemic.

“This is a crisis, and we really need to address it with reasonable laws,” Moss said.

Texting, emailing and dialing while driving has long been illegal, but motorists are still allowed to keep one hand on the wheel and the other on their phone as they chat.

Moss’s attempts to change that, as recently as last year, have met resistance from certain Republican colleagues. Some said the step isn’t needed, while others said it’s a matter of personal freedom for drivers in their own cars.

At least 24 other states ban hand-held use of phones, along with Washington, D.C. according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Nationally, 24 states ban hand-held use of phones while driving, along with Washington, D.C. according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Moss is not certain if a new bill in Utah would win enough support to pass, but she said she feels strongly it would save lives.

Sen. Don Ipson, the floor sponsor of Moss’s ill-fated bills in 2020 and 2021, has said the move would help police better enforce an existing ban on texting and driving in Utah.

“This is a great bill,” the St. George Republican said during a Senate floor debate in 2020. “I think it makes the state safer.”

Similar changes in other states have helped lower the number of deaths on the roads, he said.

Moss believes the data available on distracted driving is likely much lower than the actual numbers. Drivers can deny they were on the phone, she said, and law enforcers don’t have the resources to subpoena phone records in every case.

Just this year in Utah, distracted driving has played a role in 2,356 crashes, claiming the lives of seven, according to the Utah Highway Patrol.

154 people killed on Utah’s roads this year, and it’s only July

The same sort of tragedy struck Nate Blouin’s family four years ago.

His father Craig Blouin, 72, was biking with his wife near Delta when a distracted teen driver hit and killed him. The boy wasn’t looking at his phone, Nate Blouin said, but his eyes left the road nonetheless.

Before his death, the elder Blouin wanted to protect the landscapes he loved, his son recalled. When he wasn’t taking in mountain and desert views with his wife, Beth Allen, he was protesting the whittling of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument and writing about conservation.

He encouraged his son to make change, too.

In June, Nate Blouin won the Democratic nomination for a state Senate district in a heavily blue portion of Salt Lake County.

“He’d be excited,” Nate Blouin said of his father.

Nate Blouin talks about road safety at his home in Salt Lake City. (Josh Szymanik/KSL TV)

If elected in November, he hopes to join Moss in the fight for stronger traffic safety laws that could help protect drivers, pedestrians and cyclists.

“They’re supposed to be friendly to all users,” he said.

KSL TV is committed to being part of the solution.

Our “Road to Zero Fatalities: You Hold the Key Campaign” encourages everyone to follow the ABC’s of safer driving:

  • Drive Attentively.
  • Drive Buckled.
  • Drive Calm.

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Is it time for Utah to toughen its distracted driving law?