Utah Bans Teen Drivers From Using Cellphones

By ANNIE KNOX | May 20, 2013

Before she pulls out of the driveway, Stefhany Robles switches her phone on silent or turns it off.

The 16-year-old junior at Salt Lake City’s West High School says the distraction isn’t worth shooting off a text or answering a call.

Utah lawmakers are hoping more teen drivers will fall into a similar routine with a new law that takes effect Tuesday. The rule bars 16- and 17-year-olds from talking on the phone while driving.

“I think it would be pretty cool,” Robles said of the law. Drivers who text and call as they navigate traffic are “way distracted, and they’re not paying attention,” she said.

Under the new state law, teens who talk on the cellphone while driving could be ticketed and fined $25. The rule is a primary offense. That means officers don’t need a second reason to pull a teen over and issue a citation for cellphone use. But the tickets won’t add points to teen’s driving records.

The law lets teens off the hook if they’re calling parents. It also excludes minors who are in an emergency or reporting a crime.

Texting and driving in Utah is a misdemeanor for drivers of any age, punishable up to three months in jail and up to a $750 fine. But police can’t pull over drivers for talking on the phone.

Nationally, 33 states and the District of Columbia have some type of law restricting teens or new drivers from cellphone use on the roads.

Neighboring Arizona does not have a texting ban, while California has made it illegal to text or talk on a handheld phone while in the driver’s seat.

A report from the Utah Department of Public Safety shows that distracted driving caused about 4,900 Utah crashes in 2011. Drivers between 15 and 19 years old caused about 1 out of every 5 such crashes.

More than half of 16- and 17-year-olds nationwide who have phones said they have talked on a cellphone while driving, according to a 2009 study by the Pew Research center. Two out of 5 teens said they have been in a car when the driver used a cellphone in a way that endangered the driver and others, the study found.

The $25 fine is enough to make teens think twice about dialing friends while they drive, said Republican Rep. Lee Perry, who sponsored the 2013 legislation.

“A lot of teen drivers have admitted that they like to talk on the cellphone, and that’s not a best behavior,” he said. “As you’re learning how to drive, we want you to learn to drive effectively, without these other problems and distractions.”

Melissa Torres, a sophomore at West High School, said she didn’t think the law would change the habits of teens who fiddle with their phones as they drive.

“They’ll just be more sneaky with it,” she said. They’ll talk, but “they won’t be showing their phone. It’s like texting in class.”

Adults, too, have trouble casting their phones aside and keeping their attention on the road, said Ayumi Alanis, also a West sophomore. The new rule, she said, “should be for everyone.”

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