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Wed, Sept. 18

Statewide ban on texting while driving passes Senate
Bill still must pass House; 47 other states already have similar measures

Sen. Kate Brophy McGee says the issue of drivers distracted by using their phone is a “public health crisis.” (Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services file)

Sen. Kate Brophy McGee says the issue of drivers distracted by using their phone is a “public health crisis.” (Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services file)

PHOENIX — By a 2-1 margin, the state Senate on Monday approved what would be Arizona’s first universal ban on texting while driving.

Senate Bill 1165 would do more than make it illegal for motorists to send and receive messages unless they pulled over or were at a stop light. It also would forbid handling the phone outright to take calls, requiring the use of a hands-free device.

Monday’s 20-10 vote still does not guarantee that Arizona will join 47 other states that already have such a ban. SB 1165 still needs approval of the House, which has generally been less sympathetic to such broad prohibitions.

If it clears there, however, Gov. Doug Ducey has said he will sign a texting ban if it gets to his desk.

Until now the laws on the use of cellphones has applied solely to those who have a learner’s permit or are younger than 18 and have been licensed for less than six months. And it took until 2017 for state lawmakers to approve even that.

One change that may have helped secure votes this year was the death earlier this year of Clayton Townsend. The five-year veteran of the Salt River Police Department, conducting a traffic stop in January, was killed when he was struck and killed by a motorist who admitted to texting at the time.

But Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, said the system works the way it should.

“People must be personally responsible for what they do,’’ she said. “And if they cause an accident, whether it is from texting or any other distraction that’s going on in that car, they will be held responsible and should be held responsible.’’

And Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said it is wrong to have a law that focuses on a device rather than the question of whether the actions create a hazard.

“If we’re going to go down this path we ought to deal with distractions in their totality, with some evidence that it is impairing driving,’’ he said. By contrast, Farnsworth said, SB 1165 makes it illegal to simply hold a phone, no matter what.

“If I put it to the side and it falls on the floor under my feet, I can’t legally even pick it up,’’ he said. “That makes no sense to me.’’

But Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, who has been shepherding this year’s version, said there needs to be a focus on the specific problem of motorists whose attention is drawn away from the road because they are dialing the phone or sending a text.

“It’s actually a public health crisis,’’ she said, comparing it to the efforts of prior decades where lawmakers got serious about impaired driving and cracked down with stricter penalties and lower blood-alcohol limits. “It’s the DUI issue of our time.’’

The vote also comes on the heels of Tempe becoming the latest community to enact its own driving-while-texting ban, bringing the number to 28. Yavapai County and the communities in the area have effectively covered the Quad Cities in a cellphone-use-while-driving ban.

Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said having a statewide statute controlling the issue will ensure that all motorists know what is and is not legal, no matter where they are driving.

Brophy McGee added provisions designed to blunt criticism. Motorists could still chat and text with their hand-held phones if they are stopped at a traffic light or pulled over and parked.

There also would be a lot of time for drivers to get to know the new rules of the road, with the law not taking effect until 2021, though police could issue warnings until then. And at that time a first violation would carry a fine or no more than $149; subsequent offenses will cost offending drivers at least $150 but no more than $250.

Another section of SB 1165 makes it illegal for motorists to watch videos or movies on a cellphone or tablet, though they would be able to use a navigation program.

And recording or broadcasting a video also would become illegal unless the cameras was set up to continuously record or broadcast without operator intervention.

Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, told colleagues that all the talk about why this measure is too strict does not overcome her time on the Transportation Committee where she heard testimony time and time again from the relatives of those killed by people who were using their cellphones.

“I pray for the day in Arizona that these families do not have to continue to come to committee and tell of the tragedies that their loved ones faced,’’ she said.

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