Teen Driver

Unable to get a broader ban, state lawmakers moved last Wednesday to crack down on cell phone use on one group unable to vote: new teen drivers.

Without dissent, the Senate Committee on Public Safety and Human Services voted to make it illegal for youngsters with a learner's permit to use a cell phone for any reason except an emergency. That covers both texting and actual chatting.

SB 1056 also imposes the same restrictions for the first six months that a teen has an actual license. The only exception to that would be if the new motorist already is at least 18.

Sen. John McComish, R-Ahwatukee Foothills, said his legislation is simply an extension of existing restrictions Arizona already places on new drivers.

For example, for the first six months of driving, a teen is permitted to have only one other teen in the vehicle.

"There was a lot of data which showed that, as you would expect, that was a great cause of accidents," he said. "This is an expansion of that."

Stuart Goodman, lobbyist for AAA Arizona, said the issues are the same: distracted driving.

He said the state needs to step in because 82 percent of 16-year-olds have cell phones.

Goodman also said a AAA nationwide survey from 2010 found that 84 percent of teens questioned said they answer their cell phones while driving and 52 percent will place calls. He also said 44 percent admitted to texting while driving.

The legislation follows several years of efforts by lawmakers to place restrictions on cell phone use by all motorists.

An outright ban on dialing while driving has proven a non-starter, with not much more success for proposals to require drivers talking on a phone to have a hands-free device.

Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, has managed to get a ban on texting while driving out of the Senate, only to have the measure quashed in the House.

Phoenix has enacted a texting ban of its own, though city officials have admitted only a handful of citations have been issued. The Tucson City Council is considering a similar measure.

Even with McComish crafting his bill to apply only to teens for the first six months of driving, he already has made compromises designed to minimize opposition.

One crucial one makes enforcement of the ban a secondary offense. That means police officers cannot stop a motorist solely because they see a teen driver talking or texting but can issue a citation only if the driver was stopped for some other reason.

If someone is caught and found guilty, the fine is up to $75 for a first offense, with an additional 30 days added to the new driver's six-month restrictions; a second offense carries a $100 penalty with a 60-day extension.

And if the driver still does not get the message, subsequent convictions mean not only a $100 fine but a 30-day license suspension.

No one testified against the measure which now goes to the full Senate.

Even if the measure survives legislative scrutiny, the question remains whether Gov. Jan Brewer would sign it.

In 2010, the governor spoke at an event designed to urge teens to sign a pledge vowing not to text while driving. But Brewer said at the time she was cool to the idea of a state mandate.

"Hopefully, with the kinds of programs that we're seeing instituted here today ... that won't be necessary," Brewer said. "Teens will understand that it is very dangerous and it is incumbent upon them to not text if they want to be safe and keep their friends safe."

And she questioned how effective a ban might be.

"You can write all the laws that you want," Brewer said. "But it sometimes doesn't make a whole lot of difference. People don't follow them."

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