- Associated Press - Sunday, May 11, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah drivers caught fiddling with their phones while on the road could soon face a $100 fine.

A state ban starting Tuesday forbids anyone behind the wheel from tapping out numbers or other information on the devices, but searching for directions is still allowed.

The new law takes a current state ban on texting and driving one step further, says St. George Republican Sen. Stephen Urquhart, who brought the legislation forward this year.

It prevents in-transit texters, he says, from skirting penalties by saying they were doing something other than texting, such as checking Facebook, dialing a phone number or changing a play list.

“The current law that’s on the books, it isn’t enforceable,” Urquhart said Friday. “Hopefully, this eliminates some of the loopholes.”

Breaking the new law is a misdemeanor punishable with the $100 fine. But if a court finds it has injured someone in an accident, the fee could climb up to $1,000.

The incoming rule only applies when wheels are rolling: If the car is stopped, drivers may text.

And they can still talk on the phone, use a hands-free device and punch GPS keypads while driving.

But some say even a simple phone conversation distracts drivers too much.

University of Utah professor David Strayer says even if they’re using a headset or another hands-free device to send a text or chat, drivers on the phone are just as impaired as drunken drivers.

“It doesn’t really make much sense to have a law that would favor handheld versus hands-free,” Strayer said Friday. “They’re equally bad.”

Voice-controlled systems and others that require fumbling on the dashboard, he says, can distract more than traditional phones.

Lawmakers, he says, “may be able to punt on it this legislative session, but eventually it’s something they’ll have to address.”

To date, weaving, drifting and speeding cars glow with a blue tint, suggesting the driver is texting. Such cars tend to maintain their erratic course even after Utah Highway patrollers start trailing them, said Sgt. Mary Kay Lucas.

Often, “I can actually see the driver texting,” Lucas said.

Texting isn’t the only factor that sidetracks drivers, Lucas says, but when it comes to cutting down on distracted driving, she says, the law is a step in the right direction.

Nationally, 43 states and Washington, D.C. ban drivers from texting. A dozen states and Washington, D.C. prohibit drivers from using handheld devices.

“It’s worth it to put your phone down,” Lucas said. “I would much rather miss a phone call and arrive somewhere safe than try and answer it and cause a crash.”



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