The days of texting while driving or even chatting with a phone next to your ear may soon be at an end in Arizona.
And the reason could be the death of a police officer at the hands of a texting motorist.
A bipartisan group of legislators is pushing a plan that would finally ban the practice in Arizona. That effort, if successful, would end Arizona’s distinction of being one of only two states in the country that allows most motorists to type and dial while driving.
Talking would not be totally off limits if SB 1165 becomes law. The only permitted use would be if a phone or tablet were mounted to the dash and operated only on a hands-free basis.
What seems to have breathed new life into the movement was the Jan. 8 death of Clayton Townsend.
“We have the momentum,” said Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix.
“We have tragedy from which great good can happen if we make it so,’’ she continued. “It’s time for the legislature to stand up and do our jobs and send the governor a bill that establishes a statewide policy that is proven to save lives.”
Senate President Karen Fann said 21 cities and counties in the state already have adopted some type of ban. But the Prescott Republican said the state needs a single standard to ensure that both motorists and police know what is and is not permitted.
One of the communities that has had a law since early 2017 is Oro Valley. Police chief Daniel Sharp said the law works, especially when people know it’s being enforced.
For the first eight months, officers issued only warnings. Close to 1,200 were given to motorists who were spotted holding a cell phone.
When enforcement really began, the town issued just 78 citations in the following four months.
Meanwhile, Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, is promoting his own SB 1141 to create a new offense of “distracted driving.”
It would make it illegal to engage “in any activity that is not related to the actual operation of the motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with the safe operation.’’
But even then, a violation would occur only if the vehicle is operated in a manner “that is an immediate hazard to another person ... or property’’ or that the driver does not “exercise reasonable control of a motor vehicle under the circumstances.’’
“The issue that is unsafe is the distraction,’’ Mesnard said, whether it’s chatting on the phone or eating a burger. “So my bill goes after that issue. And it’s a bigger issue than just telephones.’’
Fann was unimpressed.
“We know that distracted driving bills do not work,’’ she said.
“There are too many loopholes, there are too many issues with something like that,’’ Fann said, saying the state needs to “hone down on the real problem.’’
But Mesnard said he believes there is more support for his plan, at least among Republicans, notwithstanding the backing of SB 1165 by party members Brophy McGee, Fann and Heather Carter of Cave Creek.
Under the terms of the bill, a first-time violation would result in a fine from $75 to $149; subsequent violations would cost drivers at least $150, with a $250 cap.
One provision of the proposal specifically bars police from demanding to see or inspect a motorist’s phone to see if he or she was actually talking or texting.
But Sharp said his experience in Oro Valley convinces him that the law still can be enforced. “We’re not saying somebody’s texting or making a phone call or answering an email,” he said. “We’re saying if it’s in your hand, that’s the violation.”
One provision prohibits any conviction from being used by the Motor Vehicle Division in any way that could add points to a driver’s license that could result in suspension or revocation. And the other bars insurance companies from considering a conviction to raise someone’s insurance rates or cancel coverage.