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Senate takes small step toward limiting teen drivers’ cell phone use

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Arizona lawmakers may finally be ready to impose some limits on driving and cell phone use — even if just slightly.

The Senate on Monday agreed to make it illegal for new teen drivers to either talk on their phones or text. They also could not manually input destinations into phones or GPS devices while driving.

But the restrictions apply only to the newest drivers, meaning those with learner’s permits or in the first six months after getting a license. After that, any restrictions would disappear.

And SB 1001 also forbids a police officer from stopping a teen motorist solely because he or she is seen talking or texting. Only if the driver is pulled over for some other reason — or gets in a wreck — could the teen be cited.

Even with all those restrictions, the measure still drew five votes in opposition.

Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, questioned the need to specifically outlaw teen calling and texting.

He did not dispute that these can cause drivers to pay less attention to the road than they should. But Smith said there are other activities more likely to lead to an accident, including drivers being distracted by other passengers in the vehicle or even taking their eyes off the road to tune the radio or put on makeup.

“There’s a lot of other things in the car that cause more distractions than this,’’ he argued.

But Sen. Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said the concerns of foes are overblown.

She said it’s not like lawmakers are trying to keep all motorists from texting or chatting. And Fann pointed out there already are restrictions on new drivers, ranging from prohibitions against being on the road between midnight and 5 a.m. to allowing only one unrelated teen in the vehicle as a passenger.

“We did this specifically … so our young folks can learn how to drive safely from the get-go because we don’t want them to do something silly like trying to text or putting a whole bunch of friends in the car with them when they go out tooling around,’’ Fann said. “We want them to be very responsible, to understand how to be safe, starting out.’’

Monday’s 25-5 vote sends the measure to the House. If approved there — and signed by the governor — it would be Arizona’s first-ever restriction on cell-phone use.

Some communities already have adopted even greater limits. Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, said one advantage of this legislation is it sets a single statewide standard, at least for new drivers.

There may, however, be an additional battle. Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said after the vote he hopes to put additional teeth into the law before it gets to the governor.

Farley wants to make it illegal for all motorists to text and drive. He said passing a bill like this sends a message to teens that once they have been driving for six months driving and texting is no longer unsafe.

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