Despite repeated failures in the past, a Tucson lawmaker is out to curb distracted driving with bills that would ban all cell phone use by drivers under 18 and outlaw text messaging as part of a wide range of distractions.
Another key, Democrat Steve Farley said, is working with a yet-unnamed Republican partner to get the bills through the GOP-dominated Legislature.
“I don’t need to have my name on it,” Farley said. “I just want it to get passed.”
HB 2426 would prohibit minors from any cell phone use while driving, including the use of hands-free devices, though it has exceptions for emergencies and reporting crimes. Offenders would be restricted from driving on public highways and prevented from receiving a license granting full driving privileges.
In the next couple weeks, Farley also plans to address text messaging in a bill to ban any activity that removes a person’s eyes, hands or attention from the road.
Farley has supported distracted-driving legislation since the 2007 legislative session, but Republican opposition has consistently blocked his bills, even when authored by GOP lawmakers.
The closest Arizona has come to a law against texting was last session, when a bill authored by Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, won Senate approval but was held in the House.
Since 2007, 30 other states have banned texting while driving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Michelle Donati, public affairs supervisor at AAA Arizona, said she supports an explicit ban on text messaging because the practice violates all three of the criteria used to determine driver distractions: taking eyes off the road, hands off the wheel and minds off the task at hand.
“Distracting driving is one of the biggest dangers on the road today,” she said. “Technology has enabled us to be in touch with each other around the clock, so with more people using technology, it’s really important that we put a ban in place.”
The city of Phoenix has banned text messaging while driving, but Donati said a statewide ban would give greater consistency to the law and ensure that drivers understand the danger.
Farley said the new bill will address the failings of past attempts by banning more than just text messaging.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re doing that is distracting,” he said. “If you are weaving because of it, for example, then you are endangering the rest of the people on the roadway.”
Alberto Gutier, director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said critics have historically questioned the difficulty of proving a driver is text messaging. Statutes that already ban reckless driving can provide the same deterrence and enforcement value, he added.
“Any law that prevents a tragedy – an injury or fatality – is worth it,” Gutier said. “But we have statutes in the books already, and maybe we should use those statues before we make something new.”
But Farley said having a specific distracted driving law would require the Arizona Department of Transportation to include distracted driving education in its programs. He said current reckless driving laws just aren’t designed to handle petty offenses like text messaging.
“Reckless driving involves eight points on your license, it involves up to six months in jail,” Farley said. “It’s like swatting a mosquito with a sledgehammer.”
States without laws against texting while driving:
• New Mexico
• North Dakota
• South Carolina
• South Dakota
• West Virginia