Cellphone Ban for Utah Teen Drivers

A few years ago, state Rep. Lee Perry — who is also a Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant — was investigating an accident that killed a young driver. She had been talking on a cellphone during a snowstorm, lost control and rolled her car. He picked the cellphone off the ground near the accident scene when it began ringing.

“It was a friend of hers,” Perry recalls. “She said, ‘What happened to my friend? We were talking on the phone and all the sudden she screamed and that’s the last I heard and the phone went dead.’ So I had to tell her over the phone that her friend had been killed.”

Such experiences prompted Perry to pass HB103 this year — which takes effect Tuesday — to ban cellphone use by drivers younger than 18.

It is one of 392 new laws that go into effect Tuesday. Others include tweaking Utah’s liquor laws (which in the end failed to remove the “Zion curtains” in restaurants), allowing more 80 mph speed zones, creating a long-fought-for dating protection law and banning smoking in cars where children are present.

Perry’s bill will not affect adult drivers (although state law already bans texting by all motorists). And it carries just a $25 fine for those younger than 18, and creates no points on their driving record. It still allows some limited cellphone use to report safety hazards, medical emergencies or criminal activity, or to communicate with a parent or guardian

Perry says that is the most he could pass politically — as several legislators complained it infringes on personal liberty — but he says it’s an important first educational step that may help convince all drivers not to use cellphones while driving.

“We are teaching best practices to our new drivers with this,” Parry says, likening the new law to restrictions placed on young drivers going through graduated license procedures — including, for a time, not allowing other passengers in their car besides parents, and not permitting them to drive between midnight and 5 a.m.

“If you tell teenagers they can’t do it, my teenager’s going to look at me and say, ‘Hey dad, why are you doing it? It may be against the law for me, but if it is a best practice — why are you doing it?’”

Perry adds, “When driving a car, you are driving a 2,000 to 5,000 pound weapon…. It’s a huge responsibility. We don’t need more distractions when we drive.”

Rolayne Fairclough, spokeswoman for the AAA Utah insurance and travel company, praised the statute.

“We hope that this law will give parents the opportunity to talk with their teen drivers and explain that using a cellphone while driving is not an option for their family.”

Utah joins 35 other states that ban all cellphone use by novice drivers. Ten states ban hand-held phone use by all drivers. Also, Utah is among 39 states that ban texting by drivers.

The Legislature passed 524 bills. Gov. Gary Herbert vetoed just one — HB76 allowing carrying of a concealed weapon without a permit. Some 74 already took effect, another 45 kick in July 1, 12 take effect at various dates after that. On Tuesday, 392 new laws take effect (a full list is available online here).