Utah Cops Struggle to Enforce Texting and Driving law


The Utah state law that bans texting while driving is just too hard to enforce.

At least, that’s what police say.

Utah has some of the strictest laws on texting and driving in the country. State law prohibits any texting – including sending, receiving, reading or writing messages while driving.  Violators can be ticketed for that violation alone – even if they’re otherwise driving safely. But, state law enforcement says that’s easier said – or written – than done. 

Along with parent groups and the auto insurance industry, state police supported a proposed state law, HB64, that they say would have made it easier for them to enforce the law by banning the use of handheld cellphones while driving. But in February 2018 state lawmakers spiked the bill.

Many police officers have a hard time with enforcement because it is hard to differentiate what use the person behind the wheel is using their cell phone for.

“I rarely enforced it because it was hard to enforce,” Jeremy Horne, who was a highway patrol officer for over 10 years, said.

In order to actually give a person a citation for texting and driving, a police officer must see the person sending the text. This is hard to do because many times the roads and different lane sizes make it hard tell if the person is in violation of texting while driving,  Farmington, Utah, police Detective Sgt. Eric Johnson said.

Police officers like Johnson say they have a hard time determining if a driver is using an app, texting, GPS or other functions. Michael Rapich, superintendent of the Utah Highway Patrol, told The Salt Lake Tribune that the bill could make it easier to enforce these laws. 

“We are very concerned with procedural justice,” said Provo Police Chief Rich Ferguson.

Under Utah law drivers can talk on the phone, report a medical emergency, report a safety hazard, report criminal activity and view GPS or navigation devices, including apps.

Horne, the former Utah highway patrol officer, said that in the case of a car accident, the person involved or responsible will rarely say if they were using their cell phones at the time of the accident, so the number of reported accidents caused by distracted driving is often higher than what reports say. Utah records show that in 2016, distracted driving caused 5,748 crashes, 3,303 injuries and 27 deaths.

Since the law went into effect in 2009,  the number of citations has been modest. These numbers can be traced back to the common belief among police in these areas that administering a ticket won’t make a difference.

The Utah Highway Patrol reported 780 people were pulled over in 2015 for being on their phones. Of the 780 drivers pulled over, only 256 people ended up receiving a citation, and the rest were let off with a warning.

In Salt Lake City, 1,300 drivers were pulled over after the revision of the law in 2014. Of these, 937 received warnings while only 380 received a citation. But not every county issues as many citations. For example, only three citations were issued in Iron County.

Audrey Emery, a senior at the University of Utah, said that when she’s behind the wheel, she restrains herself from being on her phone. However, if she wants to change songs or needs to respond to a text message she typically will do so.
“When I’m driving I always have the thought in my head that I shouldn’t be using my phone, this is dangerous,” she said.

Officers have discretion to issue a warning or a citation for violating cellphone use law.  Many of these officers would prefer to talk to drivers and use the law as a teaching instrument rather than handing out citations.

Since the law was revised in 2014, the number of crashes in Salt Lake City has dropped. From May 2013 to May 2014, the number of crashes caused by texting and driving was 140, which fell in 2015 to 126. Giving out more warnings and less tickets seems to be the right direction.

“It benefits to provide education and understanding on texting and driving and how it can impact our lives,” Johnson, the Farmington police detective, said.

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Utah lawmakers killed a proposed law in February 2018 that would have prohibited the use of cellphones while driving. Above, the State Capitol. Photo by Becca Carr


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Missy Reaveley sends a text to her friend John, telling him that she can’t talk because she is driving. Photo by Becca Carr

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In Salt Lake County, the number of citations for texting while driving dropped from 2014 to 2015. Abovek Scott Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City. Photo by Becca Carr

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A Salt Lake County Sheriff’s deputy watches traffic outside the Scott Matheson Courthouse building in downtown Salt Lake City. Photo by Becca Carr