Utah toughens penalties for texting while driving

| 9/2/2009

Lawmakers in the Beehive State compare text-messaging while driving to another deadly practice – drunken driving.

Of all the states to ban text messaging while driving, Utah has the strictest penalties – up to 15 years in prison – if the action results in death.

“If it’s a second offense, or if there’s injury, it’s a Class A misdemeanor, which is the most difficult misdemeanor in Utah,” state Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, told Land Line Now on Sirius XM on Tuesday, Sept. 1.

“Then, if you kill someone while doing it, it’s a third-degree felony, and that is copied after the DUI law.”

Hillyard said recent deaths on the highways could have been prevented.

“There had been a very tragic death of two very prominent space scientists who were killed in a car crash by a young man coming toward them who, while driving, was texting and lost concentration. His car drifted over and hit them head on and killed them both,” Hillyard said.

When the driver received only a small fine, residents called on the Legislature to toughen the texting law.

Hillyard sponsored the state Senate version of HB290. The legislation passed and was signed into law in March. The texting ban took effect July 1.

“It’s now a primary offense, so a policeman can pull you over if he thinks you’re texting,” Hillyard said.

Hillyard points to a recent University of Utah study that showed people who texted while driving were more dangerous on the roadways than someone under the influence of alcohol.

“If you pick up a cell phone or a texting device and you begin texting, you know full well what you’re doing and you should appreciate the danger that you pose to everybody on the road,” Hillyard said.

“I hope this whole thing is a wakeup call that when you accept the right to drive your car you accept the responsibility that you’ll pay attention to what you’re doing and not cause deaths of other people.”

Eighteen states have laws on the books to ban texting while driving. Enforcement has begun in 14 of those states. Penalties vary by state.

On a federal level, a group of U.S. Senate Democrats led by Charles Schumer of New York, introduced legislation to ban text messaging while driving. Congress is set to return to session after Labor Day.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called a summit on distracted driving to take place Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 at a location to be announced.

– By Staff Writers David Tanner and Reed Black