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Photo radar cameras, texting while driving remain largely legal for now

woman driver hands use cellphone driving a carThose often-cursed photo radar cameras are here to stay, at least for the time being.

But so is texting while driving.

On a 15-13 vote Monday, the Senate killed legislation that would have outlawed photo enforcement of traffic laws. SB 1167 would have wiped out not just the automated speed cameras but also the cameras at intersections that catch those who run red lights.

The defeat occurred despite an impassioned plea by Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, who contends the devices are an unconstitutional violation of privacy rights.

“Every time we drive past one of those cameras we are subject to an unwanted, unwarranted search of our vehicle,” she told colleagues. “When you go past the red light cameras they do videotape you and that information is kept and saved for whatever future purpose it might want to be used for, whether you’re breaking the law or not.”

And she complained that employees of private firms that have contracts to operate the cameras are the ones deciding whether to cite a motorist.

Sen. Lupe Contreras, D-Avondale, who lost a sister in a traffic accident, had a different perspective.

“I don’t want it to get until one of your family members passes away due to a car accident then you think, ‘Maybe I should have passed that,’” he said.

But Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said when Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu got rid of the traffic cameras in his county there was no increase in accidents.

“It’s a bit of a red herring to say ‘cameras go down, accidents go up,’” Smith said. “We found that is not the case.”

The question of banning texting while driving came in what could be the last gasp for that issue, at least this session.

Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, got unanimous approval for the ban earlier this month from the Senate Government Committee. But Senate President Andy Biggs, a foe of the ban, assigned his original legislation to not just one or two committees but a virtually unprecedented three, virtually assuring those hurdles would kill it.

It did. So Farley sought to bypass the process and tack the measure onto related legislation on motor vehicle laws up for Senate floor debate.

He was not successful.

Farley acknowledged that the Department of Public Safety has been citing texters under laws requiring motorists to drive at speeds which are “reasonable and prudent.” DPS has taken the position that no speed is prudent if someone is reading or writing a text.

But Farley said that still leaves a loophole in state law.

He cited the trial of a man who, while driving an empty fuel truck, plowed into DPS officer Timothy Huffman who was investigating an accident on Interstate 8 east of Yuma. Evidence showed Espinoza was reading his Facebook page.

Among the charges against Jorge Espinoza was second degree murder.

But his attorney argued that charge is inapplicable as Arizona has no law against reading electronic devices while driving. Ultimately the jury rejected the murder charge, instead finding him guilty of negligent homicide.

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