In most states, if somebody is texting behind the wheel and causes a crash that injures or kills someone, the penalty can be as light as a fine.
Utah is much tougher.
After a crash here that killed two scientists, Utah passed the nation's toughest law to crack down on texting behind the wheel. Offenders now face up to 15 years in prison.
The new law, which took effect in May, penalizes a texting driver who causes a fatality as harshly as a drunken driver who kills someone.
In effect, a crash caused, by such a multitasking motorist is no longer considered an “accident” like one caused by a driver who, say, runs into another car because he nodded off at the wheel. Instead, such a texting-related crash would now be considered inherently reckless.
“It's a willful act,” said Lyle Hillyard, a Republican state senator and a supporter of the new measure. “If you choose to drink and drive or if you choose to text and drive, you're assuming the same risk.”
The Utah law represents a concrete new response in an evolving debate among legislators around the country about how to reduce the widespread practice of multitasking behind the wheel – a topic to be discussed at a national conference about the dangers of distracted driving being organized by the U.S. Transportation Department for this fall.
Studies show that talking on a cell phone while driving is as risky as driving with a .08 blood alcohol level â€” generally the standard for drunken driving â€” and that the risk of driving while texting is at least twice that dangerous.
Treating texting behind the wheel like drunken driving raises complex legal questions.
John Wesley Hall, who just stepped down as president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said police might have difficulty proving a driver suspected of texting wasn't merely dialing a phone. If an officer or prosecutor wants to confiscate a phone or phone records to determine whether a driver was texting at the time of the crash, such efforts can be thwarted by search-and-seizure and privacy defenses, lawyers said.
“The police have no business going into my phone,” Hall said.
Prosecutors and judges in other states already have the latitude to use more general reckless-driving laws to penalize multitasking drivers who cause injury and death.
The Austin City Council unanimously agreed day to establish a ban on text messaging while driving. A violation would be a Class C misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $500 and can be appealed in Municipal Court. City staffers still have to write an ordinance that the council must approve, a process that could take a few months.
The Utah law “is very note worthy,” said Anne Teigen, a policy specialist with the Natonal Conference of State Legislatures. “They have raised the bar and said texting while driving is not just irresponsible, and it's not just a bad idea â€” it is negligent.”
Under Utah's law, someone caught texting and driving now faces up to three months in jail and up to a $750 fine, a misdemeanor. If they cause injury or death, the punishment can grow to a felony and up to a $10,000 fine and 15 years in prison.
Alaska is the only other state that takes a similarly tough approach to electronic distraction.