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.
In Utah, things are much tougher.
After a crash that killed two men, the state 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 penalizes a texting driver who causes a fatality as harshly as a drunk driver who causes a fatality: In the eyes of the law, a crash caused by a multitasking motorist is no longer considered an "accident," but an inherently reckless act.
"It's a willful act," says State Senator Lyle Hillyard. "If you choose to drink and drive or if you choose to text and drive, you're assuming the same risk."
The Utah law is part of a growing reaction around the country to multitasking behind the wheel.
Studies show that texting or talking on a cellphone while driving is at least as risky as driving with a .08 blood alcohol level, the standard for drunk driving. And a study at Harvard estimates that cellphone distractions cause at least 2,600 traffic deaths a year.
But there are unresolved legal issues with treating texting like drunk driving. While drunk drivers can be identified using a Breathalyzer, there's no immediate test for texting while driving. And if a police officer or prosecutor wants to confiscate a cellphone or see phone records, defense lawyers can raise questions about violations of privacy and constitutional objections based on the Fourth Amendment ban against "unreasonable searches and seizures."
In other states, existing reckless-driving laws can be used to penalize multitasking drivers who cause injury and death. But if prosecutors want to charge a texting driver with recklessness, they must prove the driver knew the risks beforehand.
Utah's new law, however, assumes that people understand the risks. The law "is very noteworthy," says Anne Teigen of the National 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 it is negligent."
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have banned texting while driving, and several Senators have introduced legislation in Congress to force all states to do the same. And last fall, President Obama issued an executive order prohibiting federal employees from texting while driving.
In Utah, the issue forced...