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Ban on texting, calling while driving gets panel OK

On an issue that Democrats have so far failed to advance, a Republican lawmaker is succeeding — proof that party affiliation is often what gets things moving in the Arizona Legislature.

A Senate panel on June 17 approved legislation, S1443, to ban texting while driving. The measure would affect drivers statewide.

Rep. Steve Farley, a Democrat from Tucson, has introduced similar legislation in each of the three most recent sessions, including this year. His bills could not even get a committee hearing.

This year, though, a first-time Republican lawmaker introduced a similar measure in the Senate. The Public Safety and Human Services Committee voted to send it to the full body by a vote of 4-to-2.

“I am a Republican. I got it out of committee. It is nice to be in the majority party,” said Sen. Al Melvin, a Tucson Republican and the sponsor of this year’s bill

Melvin’s S1443 is actually broader in scope than similar measures introduced in previous years. It bans sending and receiving text messages while driving, but it also prohibits using a cell phone to engage in a call while driving — unless with the use of a hands-free device.

Violators face a $50 fine and a $200 civil penalty if involved in an accident.

The bill exempts law enforcers and safety personnel, drivers of emergency vehicles, commercial drivers, people who are reporting criminal behavior and people who are making emergency calls.

The legislation allows a one-month grace period, where law enforcers may issue a verbal warning to motorists during the month of January 2010, with the law taking full effect on Feb. 1, 2010.
Sen. Linda Gray, a Republican from Glendale who is chairwoman of the Senate Public Safety and Human Services Committee, raised two concerns before voting for the bill.

Gray said in order to access her cell phone and speed-dial someone, she has to press its keys a couple of times. Would pressing the keys under this scenario be considered texting?

Another concern: In some cases, a person still needs to press cell phone keys in order to make a call even if using a hands-free device. Would that be considered a violation of the legislation?

Also, Gray wanted to know why the bill exempts commercial drivers, who operate big and heavy vehicles, which pose more danger if they got involved in an accident.

Melvin said he is open to suggestions. He said his original intention was to prohibit all calls while driving, even with a hands-free device.

He also said he might have to modify the bill to limit the prohibition to texting while driving. But even with the modification, the bill could run into trouble on the floor.

Last year, Sen. Ron Gould, a Lake Havasu City Republican, led the charge to kill similar legislation by offering an amendment that he said “illustrates absurdity by being absurd.”

Gould prepared an amendment that would specify the following activities as constituting reckless driving: changing the radio station, talking to passengers in the vehicle, looking at a global-positioning system, eating, drinking, looking away from the road for any reason, applying cosmetics, shaving, operating any electronic device, smoking, reading and using a cell phone or digital assistant to read, write or send a message.

Those things are just as dangerous as texting, Gould has argued.

Gould’s position has not changed. He told the ~Arizona Capitol Times~ he thinks it is bad legislation.

“It’s essentially a Fourth Amendment violation. You have no idea whether somebody was talking on the phone, you know, whether he was dialing a number or whether he was texting,” Gould said.

It wouldn’t be too difficult to pull up last year’s amendment, he said.

Two other bills were also approved by the Senate Public Safety and Human Services Committee on June 17.

*S1440 prohibits smoking in a motor vehicle if a minor is in the car. Violators would face a $50 fine for each person under the age of 18 in the vehicle.
*S1439 prohibits a person driving a pickup truck on a highway from having someone in the truck’s bed, with several exemptions, such as when transporting someone in an emergency situation.

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