Salt River Police Officer Clayton Townsend

New laws that crack down on motorists using cell phones while driving were passed after the 2019 death of Salt River Police Officer Clayton Townsend in an accident on Loop 101. Though the driver was initially charged with manslaughter and distracted driving, charges last month were dismissed because new evidence showed he was not texting when the accident occurred but had a medical emergency. 

Chandler Police have issued more than 700 citations for violators of the state’s 6-month-old distracted driving laws – more than other East Valley agencies and not far behind the 984 citations written by Phoenix officer up through June 26.

In 2019, Arizona lawmakers adopted stricter policies to deter drivers from handling cellphones or electronic devices while on the road. To allow motorists time to adjust their driving habits, the state provided a grace period before officers could begin to cite violators. 

Since the new rules went into effect in January and the grace period ended, Chandler officers have written 710 citations for distracted driving in the last five months. 

By comparison, the police departments in Tempe, Scottsdale, and Mesa reported significantly lower citation rates for the new driving statutes. 

Tempe Police reported 183 violations, Scottsdale Police issued 156 citations and Mesa Police gave at least 175 citations and warnings to drivers between January and May. 

Chandler Police could not explain why so many more motorists in their city have been cited except to say that its officers are diligently following the new laws.  

“We believe that distracted driving is a large contributor to traffic accidents and we are determined to make the city of Chandler streets safer through education, enforcement, and community outreach,” said Chandler Police Sgt. Jason McClimans. 

In 2020, the department issued about 23,000 citations for various traffic violations around the city.

Chandler is one of a handful of cities in Arizona utilizing traffic cameras to cite speeders or red-light runners. Earlier this year, the city renewed its contract with the vendor operating the red-light cameras for another five years.

Like many other agencies throughout the state, Chandler has been attempting to inform local drivers about the new laws and advising them of the penalties that can result in texting while driving.

Violators are liable to pay a fine between $75 and $149 for the first citation and up to $250 for the subsequent infractions. 

Chandler is certainly not leading the state in the number of tickets it’s already handed out for distracted driving. 

The Arizona Department of Public Safety, which patrols the state’s highways, has issued more than 4,000 citations for drivers caught using their phone. Phoenix Police reportedly issued more than 800 tickets since the start of this year. 

Ever since cellphones began to proliferate in the early 2000s, state legislators across the country have been attempting to prevent them becoming a major contributor to motor vehicle accidents. 

Nearly every state has passed some sort of law that completely or partially prohibits cell phone usage while driving. 

New York became the first state to outlaw hand-held phones for all drivers in 2001. Another 29 states, including Arizona, have adopted similar laws over the last 20 years.

Arizona was prompted to enact stricter driving laws after a Salt River Police officer was allegedly struck and killed by a distracted driver in January 2019. 

Officer Clayton Townsend was hit by a motorist on the Loop 101 freeway while he was conducting a traffic stop near McKellips Road, leaving behind a wife and 10-month-old baby.

Jerry Sanstead, 42, of Scottsdale was later identified as the driver who allegedly hit Townsend. Police said at the time Sanstead was using his cell phone shortly before the accident.  

But last month County Attorney Allister Adel filed for a dismissal of the manslaughter and other charges against Sanstead, stating “the evidence showed that Mr. Sanstead was not texting at the moment of the crash.”

She said evidence “showed he had been distracted by his phone while driving, and his decision not to focus on driving was the only reasonable explanation as to why he caused the crash that killed Officer Townsend.”

“This office sought charges based on the evidence we had at that time. However, over the life of a case, information sometimes becomes available that impacts our ability to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt.  In this case, two new crucial pieces of evidence came to light after the presentation to the grand jury. 

“One will make a key witness unavailable for trial making it impossible to prove Mr. Sanstead’s distraction close to the time of the crash and the second is a medical opinion that offers a non-criminal explanation for the crash.”

She noted that explanation was medical and that “there is no reasonable likelihood of conviction.”

A couple months after Townsend’s death, the Legislature was pressured to pass a bill that would strengthen the state’s driving laws and deter motorists from using their cell phones.

Townsend’s family publicly advocated for passing the anti-texting bill and rejoiced the day it was signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey. 

“Although we feel the pain everyday of losing Clayton,” Toni Townsend, the officer’s mother, said in 2019, “we hope that this much-needed reform can save lives to countless others moving forward.”

The legislation received widespread support from law enforcement associations, insurance companies, and medical professionals. Chandler was one of several municipalities across Arizona to publicly signal their support for enacting the bill.  

Most of Chandler’s legislative representatives favored the new law with the exception of state Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, who voted against the bill and introduced his own legislation that more broadly outlawed any distracting object that impedes a driver’s attention. 

Some recent national studies indicate distracted driving laws could have an impact on lowering fatal car accidents among teenage drivers. 

A 2020 report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that areas with anti-texting laws had a crash fatality rate that was 29 percent lower than regions with more lenient rules.

“Adoption of universal handheld cellphone bans in all states may reduce the incidence of distracted driving and decrease (motor vehicle) fatalities,” the study’s authors wrote.

National data shows that distraction was a contributing factor in causing car accidents that killed more than 3,000 people in 2019. Only 422 of these nationwide deaths reportedly involved the use of a cellphone before the accident, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute. 

In 2019, nearly 10,500 drivers involved in crashes throughout Arizona were allegedly engaged in distracted driving behavior. 

But the state’s data is not considered to be completely accurate because distracted driving is often underreported since drivers often don’t admit to using their cellphones, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation. 

For the last few months, ADOT has been spearheading a statewide campaign to dissuade motorists from picking up their phones while driving. 

“Plenty of people think they’re excellent drivers and they can multitask behind the wheel. They’re all wrong,” ADOT Director John Halikowski said earlier this year. “People become dangerous drivers when they shift their attention from the road ahead to the tiny screen on their phone.” ′

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