Teen texting bill advances

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PHOENIX -- Arizona may be on the verge of no longer being one of only two states in the country that has no restrictions on motorists using their cellphones.

But just barely.

Without debate, the House on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to legislation that would make it illegal to use a cell phone while driving. But the measure applies only to teens with a learner's permit or who are within the first six months of driving.

And SB1080 even ties the hands of police, prohibiting them from citing drivers solely because they are seen texting or talking. They could be issued a ticket only if they had been pulled over for some other reason, like speeding.

But the minimal nature of the measure does not guarantee the bill will become law.

The legislation still requires a final roll-call vote before going to the governor. And foes already are lining up.

There are two big areas of opposition.

One goes to the contention it will turn Arizona into a "nanny state,” telling people what's best for them. Those arguments have proven successful in the past, even resulting in lawmakers voting in 1976 to repeal laws requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets.

Rep. Karen Fann, R-Prescott, who guided the measure through the Senate, said that argument holds no water.

The key, she said, is this law applies only to teens -- and not even all of them at that. And Fann pointed out there already are restrictions on what these newest drivers can do, including how many other unrelated teens can be in the car with them and a prohibition against driving after midnight unless it is to or from work or school.

That, however, still leaves the separate concern that once Arizona imposes any limits on cell phone use -- even a minimal one like this -- it paves the way for even more comprehensive restrictions.

There is reason for that concern.

Earlier this year Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, introduced legislation to make it illegal for anyone, regardless of age, to send texts or messages while behind the wheel. And Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, crafted a more comprehensive measure, covering not only texting and messaging but also forbidding making calls without a hands-free device.

Fann, however, said that's not her intent.

"I certainly can't speak for any of my other colleagues,” she told Capitol Media Services. "But I certainly will give you my assurance that I do not intend on running any no-texting bills for statewide or adults.”

And Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, who chairs the Senate Committee on Transportation and Technology, has said he won't consider anything more comprehensive than SB1080 until there's some chance to see how this legislation works.

According to AAA, 46 states plus the District of Columbia ban text messaging by any motorists. But while that does not exist in Texas or Missouri, both do ban teens from using cellphones.

That leaves just Arizona and Montana with no restrictions.