Originally Published: February 7, 2018 6:01 a.m.
PHOENIX — Arizona may finally be ready to join the 47 other states who find the practice of texting while driving so dangerous, they have made it illegal.
But supporters of the ban, who have come up pretty much empty-handed for years, are having to agree to some limits to try to push the bill to the finish line and get it signed into law.
SB 1261, approved Tuesday by the Senate Committee on Transportation and Technology, would create a fine of no more than $99 for a first offense and $200 for repeat violations.
Only if the person using the cell phone or similar device is involved in a mishap that causes death or serious injury would the offense rise to the level of a misdemeanor. But even then, the maximum penalty would be four months in county jail and a $4,000 fine.
Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, who sponsored the bill, has for several years pressed for passage of some sort of restriction on texting while driving. This year, he has agreed to language in the bill that says that such a citation can be issued only if the texting was witnessed by a police officer or “established by other evidence.’’ But motorists would not have to surrender a phone to an officer who wants to determine if that person was texting while driving.
And the legislation spells out that a conviction for a driving-while-texting offense could not be used by the Motor Vehicle Division to take away anyone’s driver’s license nor be used by insurance companies to raise a motorist’s premiums.
The unanimous committee vote sends the measure to the full Senate. But the real challenge could be in the House, where lawmakers repeatedly taken a harder stand against what some see as “nanny state’’ regulations.
That logic drew a slap of sorts from state Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, who chairs the Senate panel that approved the bill.
“Sometimes it just seems like our political ideology gets in the way of common sense,’’ he said, adding that lawmakers, in discussing this issue, “have had a hard time ... to see through a common-sense lens.’’ And Worsley had a message for the parade of people who testified, some holding pictures of loved ones who were killed by distracted drivers. “I’m sorry it’s taken so long,’’ he said.
If the bill becomes law in Arizona, that would leave only Montana as the state with no laws on driving while texting. Missouri’s law on texting while driving only governs motorists younger than 21.
While waiting on the legislature to act on the issue, some cities and counties in Arizona have enacted their own bans on texting while driving. But those local regulations leaves vast areas of the state without such regulations, where motorists are free to tap away at messages while driving along the highway.
And it’s not clear whether those local laws are effective.
Michael Infanzon, who lobbies for American Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education, said he has been told that the Department of Public Safety, which patrols all numbered roads, does not issue citations to those who violate local no-texting bans.
Infanzon also objected to the penalty provision in the new legislation. “A misdemeanor for killing somebody is not enough,’’ he said.
Farley, however, said that his legislation does not preclude a motorist from also being charged with other offenses in the same accident, including, for some examples, reckless driving or even manslaughter. And Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, said those who find the penalties inadequate need to recognize the political reality apparent in the many failed attempts to enact any law governing texting while driving in Arizona.
“If this is the answer for now, we’ll take it,’’ she said.
Farley said he modeled this year’s bill after a texting-while-driving law approved last year in Texas — the 47th state to ban texting while driving. The Texas ban went into effect after the Texas Department of Transportation said 455 people died in the state due to distracted driving, with more than 3,000 serious injuries.
In addition to the limits on penalties, Arizona’s SB 1261 has a range of exceptions.
For example, texting using a hands-free device would remain legal, even to the point of motorists being able to use their hands to activate or deactivate a function. Also allowed under Farley’s bill would be using a device to play music, as well as use the GPS and mapping functions.
The bill comes a year after Sen. Karen Fann, R-Prescott, engineered approval for Arizona’s first-ever driving-while-texting ban, a limited law that applies only to teens for the first six months that they are driving. At the time that she sponsored the bill, Fann conceded that anything more would not get approved.
To get her 2017 measure heard in the House, Fann promised that it was not a precursor for any more-far-reaching restriction on texting while driving. And she vowed, in specific, that she would not sponsor any across-the-board ban on texting while driving in subsequent years.
Fann told Capitol Media Services she has kept that promise even though she is signed on to the bill as the lone co-sponsor with Farley. She insisted that, officially, SB 1261 is Farley’s proposal.