SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Hang up the phone, then start the car. That's the lesson Utah lawmakers say they want to send to teens just getting comfortable behind the wheel.
Under a measure proposed in the Legislature, 16- and 17-year-olds who talk on the phone while driving in Utah would face a ticket and a $50 fine.
Right now, "these teens have an inflated sense that they're not going to get caught," said Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, who sponsors the bill. Perry characterized the measure as a slap on the wrist that would teach minors to adopt good behavior on the road.
A House committee voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the bill, calling it an important safety measure and a teaching tool for new drivers. But lawmakers and others also debated whether the measure would set a precedent of overregulation in the state.
The Utah bill applies only to minors, Perry said, because "once they get to be an adult, they can choose" how to drive responsibly.
The law would exempt teens who are texting or calling parents or guardians, or who are in an emergency or reporting a crime. And tickets given for driving and talking would not carry points toward suspending or revoking teen drivers' licenses.
Right now, texting and driving in Utah is a misdemeanor punishable up to three months in jail and up to a $750 fine. Police can pull drivers over for texting on the road, but not for talking on the phone.
All but five states have some sort of texting ban in place. Neighboring Arizona does not have a texting ban, while California has made it illegal to text or talk on a hand-held phone while in the driver's seat.
Nationally, over half of 16- and 17-year-olds who have phones say they have talked on a cellphone while driving, according to a 2009 study by the Pew Research center. Two out of five teens say they have been in a car when the driver used a cellphone in a way that endangered the driver and others, the study found.
Rep. Dayna Layton, R-Orem, raised the question of whether a conversation with a passenger can be just as distracting as a cellphone conversation.
"I'm wary of overregulating," Layton said, but added that she supported the measure on the grounds that "it's probably a good idea to eliminate the additional distraction" that cellphones can create for new drivers.
Layton said she hoped the bill would also encourage parents to practice better safety on the road.
The mother of a 13-year-old Florida girl who was killed when a truck driver on his cellphone crashed into her school bus urged lawmakers to adopt the measure. The mother, Elissa Schee, applauded the bill as a step toward "teaching kids young that if you don't ever get into this habit, it won't be hard to break when you're of age."
Rep. Edward Redd, R-Logan, also praised the bill, saying that his experience as a medical examiner underscored a need for legislation to prevent deaths caused by distracted driving.
Similar bills concerning cellphone use driving have been unsuccessful in Utah, including legislation sponsored by Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay.
Brenda Young, 18, of Springdale, said she didn't think the measure would deter high school students from using their phones while driving.
"People are still going to talk," she said, by handing the phone off to a passenger or plugging it into their car speakers. Young and her friends regularly make calls while driving, she said.
"We're always on our phone, or texting or calling, or on Facebook, snapchatting, tweeting — anything. It's just our nature," she said. "Technology's such a big part of our day."
The bill now goes to the House for consideration.