Utah Distracted Driving Laws
- Ban on texting for all drivers (Primary Law).
- Utah’s law defines careless driving as committing a moving violation (other than speeding) while distracted by the use of a handheld cell phone or other activities not related to driving.
Utah’s Texting While Driving Stand
Like most states, since 2009 Utah has a law on the books prohibiting texting while driving. In Utah, however, it is permissible to text providing it is done during a medical emergency, when reporting a safety hazard or criminal activity, when providing roadside or medical assistance, or when used by law enforcement within the scope of their job. Penalties are a class C misdemeanor, or class B if the texting causes an accident or if the driver has a prior conviction.
There is also a law against the nebulous charge of “careless driving,” which means committing a moving violation while being “distracted” by a hand-held cellular phone or another handheld portable computer. Senate is currently debating an additional bill to expand the distracted driving laws. Senate Bill 98 would expand the definition of text messaging to include composing a text, entering data and accessing apps, but will allow the use of the GPS function of a smartphone.
Another bill, Senate Bill 128, was actually passed by the Senate. It would have prohibited the use of cell phones by drivers under the age of 18, with the exception of communicating with parents. Penalties included a $50 fine. On March 8, this bill was rejected by the House. Senator Ross Romero, the bill’s author, stated the bill was inspired by a group of teens lobbing against handheld cell phone use. Senator Stuart Adams voted against the bill citing the problems with other distracting behaviors, and he stated, “I’m not sure we can regulate inappropriate behavior. I just don’t know how microscopic we should be.” Despite the fact that 84 percent of Utah adults support the bill, and 70 percent support banning cell phone use for all drivers, SB 128 failed to pass the house.
The ban on text messaging while driving was passed in 2009, with a vote of 26-1 in the Senate and 45-29 in the House. The bill carried stiff penalties including jail time for repeat offenders and potential felony charges for texting while causing an accident. Senator Lyle Hillyard, the bill’s author, purposely did not include language to prohibit cell phone use by minors, because if felt it would decrease the chances of passing. In the House, Representative Carl Wimmer killed a “hands-free” bill by citing, “The bill would make no change in our law,” referring to the existing careless driving law.
Also in 2009, Representative Phil Riesen submitted two bills, one that would prohibit the use of a wireless device, including hands-free devices, while driving, and another more encompassing one that would ban the use of “wireless communication devices,” but would allow the use of hands-free devices. Both these bills were defeated. Another bill, HB 281, targeted texting while driving and would also ban the use of wireless communication devices while driving through parking lots and other reduced speed zones. This bill would have also prohibited minors from using wireless devices while behind the wheel. This bill was defeated on March 13.
In 2010 a bill was introduced in the House, HB 237, by Representative Reisen that would have restricted cell phone use by minors while driving, with a penalty of adding points to the driving record. This bill was defeated in committee. In the Senate, a bill, SB 113, which did not add points, was defeated, as was a substitute bill with changes the House would agree upon.
In 2011, various bills were submitted in the Utah Legislature to expand the laws addressing texting while driving, all of which were defeated. House Bill 95, submitted with a number of revisions, would have expanded the laws addressing careless driving to make illegal operating a vehicle while impaired by fatigue or illness. After dropping a provision requiring seatbelts, the bill passed the House on March 1, only to be defeated by the Senate later that month.
Senate Bill 45 was another attempt to restrict the use of cell phones by drivers younger than 18. This bill was passed by the Senate but became mired in committee in the House, and was finally defeated 32-38 on March 8. During the process of debate, Representative Carl Wimmer, a former law enforcement officer, discussed telling parents of their teens’ fatal traffic accidents, “There’s something in my opinion that is more horrific, and that is the constant attack on liberty and freedom what we see in this Legislature.” This speech was a causative factor in the defeat of the bill.
Utah has a long and proud history of preserving individual rights and liberty, dating back to Brigham Young and his settlers who left the east to find somewhere they could live in peace without interference from others. This rugged individualism presents itself with the defeat of many laws including a mandatory seatbelt law and the conspicuous lack of laws mandating helmets for motorcyclists. Even though texting while driving is illegal in Utah, the Legislature has been very consistent in preventing the bills from encroaching on personal liberty further.